The marketplace of hunting and fishing guides is crowded. There’s no shortage of hired help to put you on big bass or to help you harvest your first elk or alligator. But most paying customers expect more out of a guide than just someone to point the way. We want a companion, someone to explain and interpret the particular world that we are visiting if only for a few days, or someone who is such enjoyable company that the purpose of the trip becomes secondary to simply getting to know a new friend.
Guides who can deliver this level of companionship have an advantage over their competitors who even might have a better hunting or fishing lease, more modern equipment, or higher success rates. That’s because great guides are a bit like great camp cooks. Good cooks know that even when hunting and fishing disappoints — because of weather or uncooperative animals or other uncontrollable variables — clients who eat well are satisfied. Great guides know that the most memorable parts of a trip aren’t necessarily the pull of a fish or the shot at a buck. It’s a connection with a special place and person.
As hunting editor for Outdoor Life and its former editor-in-chief, I’ve hunted and fished all over the world. I’ve spent time with dozens of guides whose names and faces I can’t recall. Those who have left me with lasting memories are much fewer, but those memories are so clear and fond that they’ve endured for years, even though I can’t recall the animal I killed or the fish I caught in their company.
Here are a few of the great guides I’ve had the privilege of hunting and fishing with over the years, and some of the reasons that their memories and our friendships endure.
It’s his twin senses of humor and history that soothe the jangled nerves of newcomers to this wilderness of tooth and fang.
Lee Livingston does look the part of a backcountry horseman. Tucked under a brimmed hat, he could be a longhorn drover or a frontier sheriff, and his rolling gait betrays years of living in the saddle. But the gun on his belt isn’t a high-gloss revolver, it’s a polymer Glock, a reminder that we’re in modern times. Livingston, the owner of Livingston Outfitting in Cody guides hunters in the crucible of North American big-game hunting, the wilderness outside Yellowstone National Park. There are grizzlies here, and wolves, and millions of acres of public land where folks without the right gear or guide can get badly lost or hurt.
There are also elk here. Livingston’s specialty is guiding hunters to backcountry bulls. He operates out of several remote wall-tent camps set deep in the wilderness in places that both intimidate and inspire visitors. Livingston is well-suited to dealing with both ends of that experiential spectrum. A lifelong resident of northwest Wyoming, he has the easy way with horses and tack that exude confidence, but it’s his twin senses of humor and history that soothe the jangled nerves of newcomers to this wilderness of tooth and fang.
“This is hard country to get to and through,” said Livingston. “For most of my clients, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so I feel obligated to make it as memorable for them as I can, while being as safe as we can. The way I look at it, we function as a temporary family when we’re in the backcountry, because we rely on each other, especially in high-stress situations. So my job is to de-stress those situations. And to make clients feel like family.”
Livingston’s familiarity with places deep in the wilderness also eases his clients’ anxieties. He can tell you stories of streams and peaks that might not have names on maps but are defined landmarks in his guiding areas. He can tell you why certain ridges always hold elk, or about the camp of greenhorns that had misfortune in that valley. He can show you where bighorn sheep summer, and where to find rutting rams.
And he can hold you in rapt attention as he tells you where Buffalo Bill Cody, the patriarch of both Livingston’s hometown and this wilderness retreat, camped and hunted under these same mountains. Listening to Livingston hold court in a tent, the canvas walls flapping in the high-country wind and wolves howling in the shadows of tall peaks, is to be transported not just in place but also in time. And that may be Livingston’s greatest gift to his clients, providing an authentic experience that, but for the InReach satellite beacon on the other side of the belt from his Glock, could be from 100 years ago in appearance, pace, and distance to the nearest road.
See more about Livingston at Guidefitter.com/leelivingstonoutfitting.
Smith’s personality is as large as the land, and his roots are as deep as old-growth fir trees.
Jody Smith can trace his ancestry to the earliest inhabitants of his small town of Elkton. Originally from the American Midwest, these pioneers caravanned across the Great Plains on the Oregon Trail, dressed in gingham and broadcloth. They were terrified of Indians and hailstorms. They cleared land out of a wilderness of trees, built churches and schools, and in the generation before the Civil War, they were elected as county commissioners and state representatives.
Well, at least half the Smith family were.
The other half was up in the mountains, trapping beaver and killing blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk, moving down to the valley only to fish for salmon and reluctantly prove up on their ragged homesteads. When the weather broke, they were back in the big timber of the Coast Range, the misty mountains that separate the fertile Willamette Valley from the cold Pacific Ocean. Those two sides of the family could be metaphors for the two halves of antebellum America.
“My parents and grandparents always talked about those two sides of the clan,” said Smith, whose Jody Smith Guide Service is one of the most established fishing and hunting outfits in Oregon. “There were the settlers and the mountain men, and I have to guess it was an uneasy family dynamic for a few generations.”
If you fish with Smith for smallmouth on the Umpqua River, then you absorb these stories of his family the way you soak in the saltwater spray. If you hunt with Smith for Roosevelt elk or for Columbia white-tailed deer, then you harvest some of Smith’s heritage as well. His people have been here before bag limits and rifle seasons, and he knows every game-rich fold of the mountains.
“I guess you could say I was born with this knowledge,” said Smith. “I was never a very good student at school, but I’ve been a pretty good student of the woods.”
You might pay for a bass or a turkey trip, but you’ll get a history lesson, and you’ll never return to the lower Umpqua or Coast Range without thinking of that timeless tension between settlers and trappers.
See more about Smith at guidefitter.com/jody459.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. If a deer or elk come out while we’re absorbing all those lessons, it’s going to get real in a hurry. But that’s not the thing that matters most.”
Donna McDonald is an open-air teacher. Her students are often women in the dawn of their lives as hunters. She owns and operates Upper Canyon Outfitters with her husband, Jake, in southwest Montana. Her outfit is a classic multi-season operation: guided fishing in the summer, big-game hunts in the fall and scenic horseback rides most seasons.
But McDonald specifically has devoted herself to bringing more women and girls to the ranch, and subsequently into the community of hunters and outdoor folk.
“The way I look at it, if we can get more women involved in our industry, it’s beneficial in a number of ways,” said McDonald, who grew up on the ranch under the tutelage of her father. “The outdoors should be shared by everybody, and there’s a strong trend in women who want to learn to hunt. God bless the guys who take the time to teach them, but sometimes it’s best to learn from another woman.”
McDonald hosts what she calls Discovery Week on her ranch. It’s an August session tailored for women — though men can participate — in which they learn to shoot, to fly-fish, to read a compass and rely on their senses to navigate the terrain. It’s a chance for women to open themselves to learning about the natural world in a judgment-free environment.
“Hunting is not just the boys’ weekend anymore,” said McDonald. “When you have women helping other women, the pressure and anxiety are both turned way down. Once women are comfortable in a learning environment, they’re like sponges and just soak up knowledge. After all, it’s not bad having a girls’ weekend every now and then, too.”
McDonald said that while the goal of many of their trips is a trout on the line or an elk on the ground, that’s not the most important part of any outing.
“My job isn’t to teach someone how to hunt, it’s about how to respect the land or how to survive,” said McDonald. “It’s to give someone the chance to sit on the top of a mountain and just soak in a sunrise. It’s the opportunity to show someone where to find a trail or watch how a deer responds to scent. Now, don’t get me wrong. If a deer or elk come out while we’re absorbing all those lessons, it’s going to get real in a hurry. But that’s not the thing that matters most.”
See more about McDonald at guidefitter.com/ucomontana.
Gary Cameron and Family
Selway River, Idaho
Family members throw themselves into the work, often humping it 20 hours during the long days of their June bear season in the Idaho wilderness.
Gary Cameron built a thriving business as a plumbing contractor in Beaumont, Texas, and as each of his four sons came of age, they joined the family enterprise. In his rare time away from work, Gary loved taking his sons — and his pack mules — on camping and hunting trips in the Colorado Rockies.
Cameron started casting around for a way to join his two passions: family and traditional backcountry hunting. Two years ago, he walked away from the plumbing shop and into Storm Creek Outfitters, an established wilderness guiding outfit in Idaho. His boys came with him, working as guides, wranglers, cooks, and packers in frontcountry camps along Idaho’s Selway River and remote camps deep in the River of No Return Wilderness.
Gary introduces his sons. There’s Duke, the eldest, then Luke, and Brute. And then Oscar, the one whose name doesn’t quite fit his brothers.
“We may not know everything there is to know about packing or some of the backcountry trails, but we can outwork just about anybody,” said Gary. And the boys — along with the spouses of those who are married — throw themselves into that work, often putting in 20 hours at a stretch during the long days of the June bear season.
The complete transfer of ownership for established outfits is often bumpy. It’s not just handing off client lists and equipment. There are backcountry permits, pack and saddle stock and deep knowledge of the land. So for the first year, the Camerons worked with the Storm Creek crew, absorbing a generation of knowledge in just a couple of backcountry seasons.
I hunted with Brute in his second year in the field, and you’d never know — besides his twangy East Texas accent — that he was new to Idaho’s wilderness. His easy way with stock indicated a life in the saddle. He knew from just a year of elk guiding where every ridge and drainage led. And, when the shirtsleeve weather of spring bear season turned to days of snowfall in a remote tent camp, he rolled with the conditions, condensing the millions of acres of cold and snowy wilderness all around us into a cozy, fun, and collegial cook tent where tall tales were told and friendships forged.
It’s a whole family of great guides.
See more about the Camerons at guidefitter.com/Stormcreek.
“The difference between a great moose guide and a lousy moose guide is five minutes.”
Marty Clark grew up in the bare-knuckle gas fields of western Alberta, wrangling pipes, valves, and high-pressure explosives daily. But when his father retired from running a gas rig and bought a big-game outfit in neighboring British Columbia, Marty signed on as a guide.
The Clarks approach most jobs in the British Columbia bush the same way they did gas pipes: with big tools and momentum. They punched through overgrown seismic lines to remote lakes that might hold trophy moose. They rebuilt old trappers cabins as seasonal hunting lodges, and they brought along an irrepressible sense of optimism.
I hunted moose for two straight weeks with Pink Mountain Outfitters. For 12 of those 14 days, Clark and I didn’t see a single moose. Clark countered my growing sense of impatience and frustration with a fusillade of North Woods bromides.
“The difference between a great moose guide and a lousy moose guide is five minutes,” he’d say at least twice each day. Or, “Moose show up on their time, not ours.”
He said, unapologetically, “Sometimes you just trip into one right off the hop. Sometimes you don’t.”
At the time, Clark’s eternal optimism rubbed me wrong, almost as if he couldn’t see how futile our hunting was. But, as the days wore on, and we started to see more moose sign, I started appreciating that he was not only right in tone but in substance. Moose really do show up on their own time.
On the second-to-last morning, when I saw the bull I ended up shooting, Clark looked my way. “What did I tell you?”
After I shot, he had one final truism: “Every moose guide is happy to hear the sound of a gun,” he said. “But the fun ends when the shooting stops.”
See more on Clark at guidefitter.com/pinkmountainoutfitters.
About the author: Andrew McKean is a father, husband, hunter, prairie dweller, outdoor writer, and hunting editor of Outdoor Life.