BE­TWEEN FISH

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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.

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