Tough conditions challenge fishing guides

Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Flood waters from the region's unusual pattern of snowmelt finally forced fishing guide Dennis Randa off the upper Kenai River a week ago.

''I quit doing the canyon,'' he said. ''It was white-knuckle for me.''

Despite the flooding, despite brown water, despite grass and trees drifting in the current, Randa and his clients were still getting fish.

''They were right over in the grass,'' he said, ''but we caught fish.''

When you are a fishing guide, that is what business is all about. You catch fish, or give it your best try, every day you can all summer long. From the outside looking in, this is dream work.

From the inside looking out, it isn't quite so rosy. To do what Randa has done for 18 years, you have to like hard work, long hours and people.

Some don't like the hard work. Some don't like the long hours.

A lot don't like the people, or don't like some of the people. That's easy enough to understand. The planet has no shortage of irritating humans. Guides sometimes get to spend a day stuck in a boat with them.

Some simply don't appreciate the natural world. Others are insistent on ''getting what they paid for.'' In other words, they want to catch fish, and they want to catch fish now.

Forget the wild experience. Forget the bald eagles flying overhead or the merganser and chicks wing-pounding along the water, or the moose or bear on the shoreline. Forget the beauty of the surrounding mountains. Forget the roller-coaster drift boat ride.

Forget all that.

Some people think it's the guide's duty to ensure clients catch fish, overlooking the fact that there are times when fishing success is more at the whim of the fish, or the weather, than the guide.

And the weather has not been kind to Kenai guides this year. May's low water made the lower river hard to navigate at the start of king salmon season. Then came the floods of June that boosted upper river flows and filled the lower river with Killey Canyon dirt.

Guides have had to work especially hard for their pay, and the tips that come with success are down.

Not many are complaining. I called Randa. He didn't call me.

It was a Monday, and he was off the river, chasing down paperwork. He seemed oddly thankful.

''After 18 seasons,'' he said, ''this is a job. But it's a job I love. I wouldn't have it any other way.

''I take people to my office every day, and they look at it, and they say, 'Hey, this is pretty neat.' But, you know, my office furniture was getting thrown around there pretty good the other day.''

Randa's clients didn't mind. They thought riding the wave trains through the Class III Kenai Canyon was great fun. At the oars of a heavily loaded drift boat, Randa thought the pucker factor was getting too high.

While the clients were enjoying the views of sheer rock bluffs blasting by, Randa was working at the oars to make sure the drift boat went through without hitting those bluffs, or some other obstruction.

''I had a big load,'' he said. ''At that water level, it was a liability.''

Where it might have been steer a lightly loaded raft, it was work to row a heavily loaded drift boat. Do this every day for a while, and it begins to take a toll.

''I had nine out of 14 days where I was doing all-day trout trips,'' Randa said. ''I was pretty well used up.''

It was with a sense of relief, in more ways than one, that he finally shifted his operations to tamer waters.

The rowing got a whole lot easier when he abandoned the upper river for a short stretch of the Kenai draining out of Skilak Lake. Sure, there were only four miles or so of good water before the mud and dirt of the Killey tributary thoroughly messed up the Kenai. But there was some decent fishing in that stretch.

More important, from the guide's point of view, ''it was a piece of cake to row.''

And that's what guides do. The work really isn't about fishing at all.

Guides row. They advise. They bait hooks. They land fish. They clean fish. They navigate. They hold hands and pat backs and offer encouragement.

They worry, a lot, about people hooking themselves, falling overboard, breaking tackle, putting their fingers in places fingers don't belong, paying the bills, fixing the equipment, making it through another season, and so on.

When I hung up with Randa, he was off to get a propeller for his ocean boat. Then he'd finish the paperwork, get the prop on the boat, probably do some gear maintenance and get up before dawn to head to Deep Creek on a saltwater charter.

This was shaping up as a relaxing alternative to the upper Kenai after all the bone-wearying battles with high water.

Best of all, though, he'd made it to July. That meant he only had to hang on for a couple more sleep-short months of hard work.

He already has vacation dreams. He's looking ahead to getting the dogs out for some wing-shooting in the fall.

The dogs don't demand anything. The dogs do as you tell them. And the dogs don't care whether there's a fish in the river.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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