We don’t want to lose the sense of adventure and boldness that comes from following trails that diverge from the well-trodden path. By WILLIAM SISSON
There is a group of young, seminomadic fishing folks, mostly men, moving with the seasons, guiding, taking odd jobs in the down time, and fishing as much as they can. Some are living on the margins of the grid, trying to figure out which current seam to follow. Are they postponing adulthood by shunning traditional careers and eschewing the corporate life? And if so, what’s wrong with that? They’ve found another way, at least for a while. If there is ever a good time to be bold and footloose, it’s when you and the world feel young.
I spoke with a handful of young guides recently who have no interest in following a traditional career path or the 9-to-5 routine. The concept of corporate ladders, casual Fridays, sitting in traffic, synergizing, paradigm shifts and the like have no allure for this bunch.
They work hard, guiding for 50 or more days at a stretch, but they are where they belong, be it at the helm of a sportfishing boat headed offshore or in the Alaska backcountry, working the oars as a client tries to put a mouse pattern next to a cutbank.
A couple of the guides I talked to were headed down a more traditional path when something in their head or heart caused them to choose an office with no ceiling or walls. Pete Jaacks grew up in a fly-fishing family in Colorado and went to Colorado State, where he got a degree in economics. But somewhere in the back of his mind — it might have been that trip to Alaska with his parents when he was young — steered him toward the wilderness rather than fluorescent lights and a warren of cubicles.
“A lot of my classmates went into finance and banking,” says Jaacks, who is now an Alaskan guide. “None of that really appealed to me. About two weeks before I graduated it occurred to me that I might not have studied the right thing.”
He took what savings he had after graduation, bought a beat-up camper, loaded it with camping and fishing gear, and drove the Alcan to Alaska, where he fished, did odd jobs and tried to get the lay of the land. “I wanted to find a place with a little breathing room,” says Jaacks, 27, who is in the process of buying an established wilderness guide service in Alaska with partner John Jinishian, a Connecticutborn guide and contributor to Anglers Journal.
“I can’t wait to get back in the bush,” Jaacks says. “To be able to wake up every morning and hear the wind blowing and the water flowing. No car horns. No e-mail.”
Matthias Hackett, who guides on the Upper Delaware River, also started down a well-marked channel only to find a tributary more to his liking. He went to a private boarding school on a hockey scholarship, graduated college with a business degree and did the corporate thing for several years, which involved running and selling a small startup he founded. Now he guides full time and wouldn’t trade the fishing life for anything. During the fishing season, he lives in the Catskills in a 20-year-old trailer in the Beaver-del campground on the East Branch of the Delaware, with a crew of like-minded souls. “I love the lifestyle,” says Hackett, 29, who grew up in a fly shop in Pawling, New York, and guided through college. “I’m not married. I don’t have anything tying me down, and I’m not going to be able to do this when I’m 50. You pull in $500 a day doing something you like. And on the days you’re off, you’re still where you want to be, on the river, at fish camp. It’s like a little utopia up here. We laugh, because we can sort of see a highway and all the people going to chase a dollar every day.”
Hackett says he’s fortunate to have graduated college without debt. “I didn’t come from a rich family,” he says. “I came from a middle-class family who planned for my college. A lot of my friends owe $100,000 or $150,000. The bank needs to see steady employment to pay their loans. It’s a system, and everybody is locked up in it.”
He says his friends from college are making good money, but he wonders how satisfied they are with their choices.
“People try to buy happiness. Or to get it in other ways. But at the root of it, they’re not happy. Up here, we’re a little too happy,” he says, laughing. “We sometimes have to pinch ourselves.”
That’s a pretty good sign you’re on the right path.