Guide of the Month: Brent Sawyer, Backcountry River Guides

Interviewed by Emerald LaFortune

Photography by Backcountry River Guides & Joe Brinkley

Name: Brent Sawyer
Hometown: Jerome, ID
Current Location: McCall, ID
Job Title at Backcountry River Guides: Steelhead Guide & Owner

Backcountry River Guides

Backcountry River Guides

Tell me the story of Backcountry River Guides.

You’re probably familiar with Exodus in Riggins. I started fishing for them in ’99 and the last couple years they decided to sell so I had the opportunity to purchase the jet boat permits. I knew what I was getting into but still I was thinking, “Oh boy here we go.” To make the leap from guide to an outfitter… I still get on the water a lot but you get off the water and there’s a bunch of invoices to do and you’ve got to deal with the paper trail. But that’s how it came to be.

How did your time as a guide help you move into outfitting? What have you had to learn?

It helped me from the clientele aspect as I had a good knowledge base of what I was getting into for day to day logistics and operations. I knew that being a small business owner was going to be the challenge. It’s been a learning curve and it’s been fun but it’s been stressful. I’ve never been a business owner so there’s a lot to learn and I’m learning, figuring it out.

What resources have you used to gain that business knowledge?

Amy at Exodus has been a huge wealth of knowledge. She’s awesome and has helped me with special use permits and the licensing board.

What makes a good steelhead guide?

As with any guide, you need to be a good people person. And then you second you need to be a very dedicated fisherman because steelhead fishing, it’s a persistence game. You have to put your time in. And within that time you have to pay attention to detail.

Pay attention to detail in what way?

With everything - the water conditions, the flow, the temperature, the time of year, your gear, not getting lazy about dull hooks or a nick in your line. You don’t get many opportunities to get into fish so when you do get that opportunity you need to capitalize on it.

How and when did you begin steelhead fishing?

I began steelhead fishing on the Salmon River up by Shoup in high school. A good friend took me fishing when I was twelve and then essentially I got the steelhead bug right then and there. Then I went to school in Moscow and as you know the Clearwater is not far away. It wasn’t good for grades but it was good for my steelhead knowledge!

Joe Brinkley

Joe Brinkley

You also work in wildland fire. How do you balance those two seasons?

Luckily the steelhead season and fire season fit really well together. Usually our steelhead run will show up mid October and go through Thanksgiving or early December and then start again in February and March and the season is done and it rolls right into fire. It’s a great fit.

You have a family, correct? How does your family interact with your guiding business?

Really well. I have an awesome wife who understands that I work a lot and have long hours.  Luckily the fishing season is short - five/six weeks in the fall and four/five weeks in the springtime and I just try to make the most of it. But I used to always spend the night down in the canyon or be away but now I definitely commute more. If for nothing else than to tuck the kids into bed when I get home or to have a brief fifteen minutes of family time - that’s worth it. It’s a balance, that’s for sure.

What’s the most rewarding part of steelhead guiding?

I would say it’s a two part answer. One is how excited people get when they hook a big fish. It’s really cool to see. Like when they need to sit down after catching a fish because they’re shaking - that’s pretty gratifying. And then also because on the Salmon, because I’m on the water all day I tend to take it for granted at times, how beautiful the country it is. But people from wherever (throw a dart at the map) they get in that canyon and you’ll catch ‘em just staring at the hillside. Their comments are, “What an incredible place.” I can disengage from fishing for a second and think, “Oh yeah - it is a beautiful place.” So that is good for me because I could be head down fishing all day but to look up, it’s that outsider perspective. It keeps me in check and makes me appreciate where I am.

Backcountry River Guides

Backcountry River Guides

And the frustrating parts?

Sometimes steelhead just don’t want to bite. It’s tough because you really want to get clients into fish and sometimes the fish don’t want to cooperate. Most of the fisherman I work with they get it - they’ve fished with me long enough that they know we have good days and slow days. I wont say it’s frustrating, they’re just tough days because everyone wants to catch. But sometimes the fish don’t bite and that’s why they call it fishing.

Rather than catching, right?

Right! As I’ve guided longer it’s easier for me to deal with because I understand it’s just one of those days. Earlier guiding, it was really stressful to not catch fish. You’re out there, you’re busting your butt but occasionally those days happen.

I guess the only other frustrating aspect is until this year I was always in a drift boat and I hate the wind. First thing in the morning when you come to work and it’s already super windy you just know it’s going to be a long day. But really, for the most part I don’t have many frustrations. A few, but it’s just the job. In a perfect world the wind wouldn’t blow and we’d catch fish every day. But then everybody’d be a guide.

And none of us would have arthritis in our hands…

Right, I wouldn’t have claw hands come Thanksgiving.

So now with the jet boat permit you’re able to access the Frank Church Wilderness section of the Main Salmon. How is backcountry steelheading different than fishing around Riggins, Kooskia or Salmon?

I know this sounds silly and it’s hard to describe but it’s just as soon as you leave the end of the road it has a different feel. I don’t know if it’s the lack of highway or that you see more wildlife. Or maybe you just know it’s more remote so it has this kind of feel to it of knowing you’re further out there. Personally, for me, when I’m fishing right by a highway you’re seeing trucks go by, hearing that.  But you get on those remote sections and all you hear is the river. That’s a good sound.

Who inspires you as a guide?

There’s a couple guys around the Riggins area. One, Kerry Brennan and another guide, I don’t even know his last name but his first is Geoff - these guys have been out there forever. They’re really good fisherman. They’ve been on the sticks twenty, thirty years fishing which is rare and pretty cool.

What inspires you as a guide, why do you get out there?

I like catching fish but it’s a lot more than that. The Salmon River, steelhead rivers in general, there’s something energizing about them. And then to take a person who isn’t from there and to show them your home water and have them catch a big fish. I’m inspired by the whole package.

Is there a most memorable fish that you or a guest has caught during your time as a guide?

Well, I could tell you lots of fish stories. What would be the most memorable? Let me think about that.

Over the years you see quite a few big fish and so it’s not just a big fish story. It’s more the person behind the reel that makes the fish or makes the story. My high school English teacher and her husband come up fishing every year. And every year, something happens with those guys. One year she broke a rod. And not many folks break rods but she did and then said, “Well, I’ve been lifting weights!” Or another time a lure broke off on a fish. It was a special one and I found it two days later, six miles downriver. So then after that moment - her name’s Jude - so it became “Jude’s lure”, this purple plug. Sure enough next year we lost it again and this time the fish took the lure, the line, the rod, everything. And so this time, I’m writing it off, this thing is gone for good. But I got it back, again. I told some other guys what we had lost and they actually got it the next day - the fish, the plug, the line, the rod, everything.

It sounds like you have many return guests that come back year after year.

It’s great. You spend half your time in the boat just catching up on family stuff and “How’s the kids, how’s the job.” It’s not just asking what they do for a living, know what I mean? It’s really comfortable. They hop in the boat and are ready to go. It makes it fun because I look at the calendar and it’s just taking friends fishing.

Backcountry River Guides

Backcountry River Guides

Why Idaho?

The first answer would be born and raised here. But I think it’s bigger than that. We’ve got elbow room. Anywhere else to get this kind of room you have to go to Canada or Alaska. I’ve fished Alaska and thought about living there but now I’m glad I didn’t. It’s good to be closer to family. But for me, two or three miles from my house there’s millions of acres of public land that go on forever. I’ve got the Frank Church right here and the Gospel Hump to the north. It’s neat being on the edge of that elbow room, if you will. And all the free flowing water, it’s captivating. All the rivers around here are just awesome.

Have you ever thought of moving on from guiding? If so, why didn’t you?

Yeah it’s like every guide. At the end of the season you are wondering when your last trip is, you're ready to be done. But then you crawl out of the boat for a month and you’re like, “When’s fishing season start again?” Leaving guiding has crossed my mind but then you realize… you do a little soul searching and realize why you do it. And I feel that time off is important to recharge your batteries. Then you come back to the next season just as fired up as you were for the last season.

Anything else I should know about steelhead guiding, your work, Idaho...anything we missed?

Oh man, I’m not very good at this off the cuff stuff. I guess I always laugh about it, but I feel like I’m living the dream. I think I got lucky, right place right time. I have two occupations that I really love. I get to spend a lot of time outside and I get to work with some incredible people and see some incredible country.

Backcountry River Guides

Backcountry River Guides

Thanks Brent, good luck with the fire season!

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