Vince Froehlich’s drift boat was dressed to kill.
Six rods were rigged and ready to hunt down king salmon and steelhead with bobber and egg setups, plugs or divers. A dozen spare leaders were rolled on a foam dispenser. Lures in every shape, size and color were organized in see-through boxes.
It’s no accident the plugs seem remarkably clean. “I occasionally run them through the dishwasher,” said the operator of North Fork Angling guide service.
His bait cooler rivaled a sushi bar for variety, color and presentation. Sardines, prawns, sand shrimp and cured eggs were chilled in various colors and flavors.
Clean from bow to stern, sponsor logos neatly applied, gear neatly stowed — the drift boat looked primed to pick up a date for the prom.
“It’s a big leap from being a fisherman to being a fishing guide,” said Froehlich, 43, as he started working the oars on the Klickitat River. “But having your gear ready and organized is just basic.”
A lifelong angler from Yakima, Froehlich is launching a second career after burning out from 20 years in a high-stress corporate position.
“This is more like living the dream you have as a kid,” he said, after praising his wife for her support. “A bad day on a river is better than a good day in the corporate world.”
But he’s working harder for the money, he said, noting that every day comes down to his ability to produce against all the odds Mother Nature delivers. “The hardest part is consistency,” he said.
The Klickitat — about half the size of the Spokane River — is a remarkable but fickle base for a guide. Borne from the moist North Cascades and the glaciers on the east side of Mount Adams, it flows through forest, transitions into sparsely populated pine-oak canyons rimmed with basalt cliffs, then tumbles to its confluence with the Columbia River at Lyle, Wash.
Most important to anglers, the Klickitat is host to runs of steelhead, chinook salmon and coho.
“Fishermen generally want day trips, but I’ll do custom trips; I’ll do whatever you want to do,” Froehlich said. “My favorite is an overnight float on the upper Klickitat, camping on the river. Idaho has nothing over that experience.”
Yet the Klickitat can be cruel, blowing out when sun or rain prompts glacier runoff into Big Muddy Creek and other headwaters.
“I can fish this river when it’s running 2,900 (cubic feet) in June and when it’s running 800 cfs in October, but there are many days scattered in between when it’s unfishable,” he said.
“I don’t think a guide can make a living off any one river. You have to move around with the fish and the conditions.”
Froehlich has guided anglers from Washington to Alaska for seven years.
“This is my second year as a pro, doing my thing rather than someone else’s,” he said. “I’m getting a lot of repeat customers from last year. That’s what every guide hopes for.
“I also have a jet sled, so we could be at the mouth of the Klickitat on the Columbia this week or over on the Hanford Reach (of the Columbia) next week or on the lower John Day River in November.
“But when everything’s right, it’s really hard to beat the Klickitat for a complete day. Some people think just being on this river is worth the trip and catching fish is a bonus.
“October is the busiest month. That’s when the fiberglass hatch happens. Lots of fly fishers.”
While it can be compared to the Grande Ronde River in some ways, the Klickitat has more fish-holding water with shorter gaps in between.
“This is perfect for me,” Froehlich said, rowing gently to work his clients’ diving plugs down through a hole. “I’m a goer. I like to seek out the fish. I love to see other people catch them.”
He adds personal touches on everything from bait to presentation. Being a new guide, he’s not too set in his ways.
“I’m always listening to guys like Bob with years and years of experience,” he said, referring to Yakima angler Bob York, 63, the former president of the Northwest Steelhead and Salmon Council.
The two men were sharing a riverside campsite last week, York in his RV and Froehlich sleeping in the back of his pickup to save money.
“You’ve got to keep costs under control to make it,” he said. “With fuel prices the way they are, I make sure I have four or five consecutive days booked to make it worthwhile to haul a boat down here.”
Startup costs for Froehlich’s guide service include state fees, licensing, insurance and even a Coast Guard merchant marine credential for “six-pack boats” so he can host anglers in his jet sled on the Columbia River.
“A lot of guides fudge on this stuff,” he said. “A Klickitat guide was ticketed recently: he had his $240 game fish guide’s license (for steelhead) but he didn’t have his $240 food fish license and he had a salmon. Busted.
“Washington doesn’t require proof of bonding, so any Joe Schmoe can send in and get a stamp to put on the side of his boat. Bonding requirements are not checked or enforced unless something goes wrong. The exception is on rivers like the Klickitat, where the Forest Service checks all of my requirements before giving me a permit.”
In addition to meeting the bureaucratic expectations, a new guide also has to ease his way into the fishery’s social culture.
“You have to have confidence in yourself,” he said, after a long-established Klickitat River guide pulled out of the river just 20 feet from where Froehlich was fishing with a client. The established guide didn’t say hello or even acknowledge the new guide on the river.
“You can’t expect a heroes’ welcome when you move onto water somebody thinks is his,” Froehlich said. “But I plan to be a good neighbor. It will work out.”
Beyond the personalities, the gear, the business sense and finding the right river, a guide’s skills are constantly challenged by flows, temperatures, weather and the fish.
“We all strive for the day you can do no wrong, the day we give our clients the trip of their lives,” Froehlich said. “It happens, but not every day.
“If you think you’re a good fisherman, try being a guide. It’s humbling.”