By Scott Robertson
Randy Ratliff runs a guide service called East Tennessee on the Fly. He guides trout fishing expeditions on the Watauga and South Holston Rivers and smallmouth bass fishing expeditions on the Holston River west of Church Hill.
“I’ve built up my client base since I was guiding part-time,” he says. “I started guiding full-time in 2000.” Those clients range from businesses that bring teams of executives as a team-building exercise (and perk), to ladies’ groups that want to push the boundaries of what they’ve done in the past, to father/son and father/daughter trips.
Ratliff says that broad base of clientele means his is a business with low margins but high satisfaction. “I keep 20 pairs of waders and 30 pairs of boots on hand,” he says, “because you never know when you’ll have someone who’s just starting out and has none of those things themselves. I have 42 different rods for the same reason. Those cost between $150 and $300 apiece.”
Tack onto that the costs of doing business that you’ll find in virtually any endeavor – liability insurance, county business licenses, taxes on equipment, and maintenance – and you’ve got quite an investment on your hands before you tie the first fly.
“It’s quite daunting,” says Ratliff. “When I started, I built my own boat. And even that cost me $5,000 plus my own labor.”
Nes Levotch, whose name you may know from his work as director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency, has been guiding in Northeast Tennessee for 15 years. He runs Tennessee Mountain Rivers Guide Service. Levotch says he too builds his own boats, which he also sells. “I’ve been building boats for the last 10 years,” says Levotch, who also designs and builds his own nets and, of course, ties his own flies.
Levotch has a national reputation that mirrors the region’s own reputation for high quality fishing. His regular clients come from as far away as Oregon and Louisiana.
Levotch soft sells his wares, pointing out the advantages of a scissor-handled net he designed – “See, this goes all the way down to the bottom with the flat end, then you can close it like this.” – or the boat he’ll be fishing in – “It only needs three inches of water, which makes it ideal for fishing these shallow spots in the river, and it’s really stable. You can stand all the way over on one side and it won’t tip at all.”
Both Ratliff and Levotch are seasoned guides who can quote chapter and verse about which fish will be at what hot spots and when. “Right now we’re finishing up caddis on the Watauga,” says Ratliff. “That started back in March. Mayflies on the South Holston will really kick in starting in June.”
But a growing number of high school and college age fishermen and women are taking up the sport, and some feel more comfortable with a younger guide like 22-year-old Charlie Parker of Eastern Fly Outfitters, who’s been guiding in Northeast Tennessee for just under four years now.
“I’m kind of a specialist,” he says. “I guide for stripers (stripe bass) and carp on the fly, which is kind of a new thing that’s really growing around here. I take folks on Boone Lake and on the bottom end of South Holston and the Holston and Watauga Rivers.”
Like Ratliff, Parker says his clientele is varied. “We have everybody from very well-to-do surgeons who schedule three or four trips a summer with us to the once-a-year weekend warriors who save all summer to take a trip with us because they’re dying to get out on the lake. Everybody likes to have a trip that’s tailored for them.”
For many of those young, beginner clients, taking a guided trip is not only gives them the best chance to be where the fish are, it also represents the only real chance they’ll have to fish with top-of-the-line equipment, which, according to Clint Lensgraf, flyfishing department head at Mahoney’s, can start at $500 and run to $2,500.
“If you do it right, it’s actually comfortable in the summer just to wet-wade,” says Lensgraf. “That way you spread the expense, just getting the rod and reel first, then the waders later in the year.” Regardless, says Parker, it makes sense to go with a guide the first time.
“The biggest thing a guide offers is just the knowledge he has,” says Parker. “For instance, I probably fish 300 days out of the year.”
Not every fisherman who advertises himself as a guide has the kind of dedication Parker has, or the experience Levotch and Ratliff can boast. So novice sports need to make sure of a few things before plunking down $250-$450 for that big trip down the river.
• You need your own fishing license. A guide will not provide one for you.
• Guides should be licensed and insured. A guide who does not bother with liability insurance may not bother with other details.
• Generally, guides will supply waders, boots, rods, flies and a snack on half-day trips or a lunch on full-day trips.
• For novices, guides will generally tie knots.
• Many guides will not allow alcoholic beverages on their trips. Make sure you and your guide see eye-to-eye on this before the day of the trip.
• Find out about tipping beforehand. Guides talk with each other.
• Finally, ask your guide how he spent his winter. Most will talk about having gone fishing. Pros will also be able to tell you about the amount of time they spent tying flies, patching waders, resealing boats and doing the hard work you’ll never have to do.