Learning to Work While Enjoying the River
“Where the Trout Leap in Main Street” is the slogan of Saratoga.
With the Upper North Platte River running through the center of town, the sports fishing industry is and has historically been one of this area’s top tourist attractions and provides dozens of jobs, including many for young people.
One of the most attractive jobs was the fishing guide. Recently, a couple of those early-day “oarers,” as they were called, shared their teenage experiences, which I pass along.
“When I was 16 years old, back in the 1950s, I got a job as a fishing guide during the summer. This was great as the job started when the North Platte River ice cleared, and the flow was reasonable, or nearly so, which was close to when school was out for the summer.
“We would row these boats with two fishing dudes aboard – one in each end of the boat and the guide in the middle seat.
“The boats were plywood and 14 to 16 feet long, and they were built so the center was lower so they pivoted freely. The rower/guide sat in that middle seat and faced down stream to spot the rocks, trees and shallow water and try to avoid handing up, breaking the boat or throwing those dudes into the water and drowning them, which was considered poor guide practice. You didn’t row for ahead propulsion – the water did that. You just dodged the rock and picked the best approach to rapid stretches of the river.
“In some areas if you didn’t approach correctly you would get into deep do-do and flip or hang up the boat. We sometimes got a downstream oar too low, and it would dig in and break, or worse yet, fly back and hit you in the head, so each boat carried a spare.
“Sometimes we would end or start the trip right in Saratoga, but mostly we ‘tailored’ both ways. Usually we’d have two boats on a trailer pulled by a six-passenger station wagon. Some outfitters had Jeep Wagoneers so the driver and four dudes would sit inside and me and the other guide (usually another 15- or 16-year-old buddy) would ride in the top boat on the trailer along with two coolers, two minor/bait buckets, various fishing poles, nets and such.
“We’d go someplace where we could put the boats in that was a good days float above where we wanted to get out. We were on the river all day so we carried beer, wine, booze, soft drinks and even water and lunch. We’d unload the boats, put them in the water, load all the stuff, get the dudes aboard, push off and get those dudes fishing. In those days we mostly used minnow seined by the outfitter and guides out of the river for bait.
“The rowing was like some other jobs, mostly relaxing until the rapids and then you worked fast and pulled hard for several minutes. Also, you had to show many of the dudes how to fish, which sometimes was interesting. At the end of the day we cleaned the fish caught, loaded the boats and equipment and returned to Saratoga.”
Both of the young men were trusted guides and gained valuable experience and responsibility from these early jobs. One became an engineer while the other remained in Saratoga to become a world-famous guide and outfitter.
In a 1987 interview, the outfitter noted that it wasn’t possible for local youngsters to learn the guide business any more with the new rules and regulations.
“ . . . When they said we needed licensed guides in every boat, it hurt us,” he said. “We were using local boys, starting them at 13 or 14 on the boats to learn. By the time they were in high school I could send them anyplace. The law made it so boys had to be 18 to start.
“At 18 the boys were too smart to learn anything,” he laughed. “All they wanted to do was drink beer and chase girls.”