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At the Confluence: Meet Brian Hilbert

A couple of themes ran through my conversation with Brian Hilbert, a guide new to Angler’s Covey but with a long resumè of guiding experience. Over breakfast, we talked about fly fishing, of course: his beginnings, his entry into guiding, and how he has grown as a guide. The other idea that weaved through our conversation was what it means to be a professional guide.

Delivering a quality experience on the river.

An Early Start

Brian tells me, early in our conversation, that, “My dad was an avid angler and hunter.  He wasn’t a fly fisher, but he got me my first fly rod for my tenth birthday.” Not long after that, his dad gave him a fly tying kit for Christmas. Brian’s beginnings as a fly fisher started early in Portland, Oregon. 

And it grew from there.

“In high school, I actually bought a drift boat before I had a driver’s license.” He fixed it up with help from his grandfather. Before long, his father would pick him up from school with the boat in tow. “He’d drop me off at the put-in on the river.  Then he’d pick me up at the take-out at dark.”

Back then, before the Internet changed our lives, a fly shop was not just a place where you got your gear.  “It was where you hung out, where you congregated, more of a social thing. Old guys were in there, drinking their coffee. Telling fish stories. Go in there, read the books, listen to these guys. I loved going in there.”

Things Didn’t Go As Planned

It wasn’t Brian’s “life plan” to be a fly fishing guide. Growing up, he wanted to be a herpetologist or veterinarian.  But that plan changed when he was a sophomore in high school. That plan changed on September 11.

“My buddies and I wanted to go serve our country.  And we planned on going into the marine corps.”

But during the entry process, when they “test you head to tail,” Brian failed the hearing test. The examinations revealed that Brian had 70% hearing loss in his left ear. The likely reason was from waterfowl hunting when Brian was a young kid. “I was so far below the bar, I couldn’t get in to any branch of the military.”

By April of his senior year, Brian didn’t have a back up plan.

Around the time he graduated from high school, a buddy who had left Portland and worked at a fly fishing lodge in Alaska encouraged Brian to at least interview.  “Spend the summer in Alaska.  Make a little money and figure out what you want to do this fall.”

Brian graduated June 6, 2003. On June 7, he was on a plane to Kodiak, Alaska. They hired him on the spot.

Building a Career

After four months in Alaska, he and his buddy started a steelhead guide service back in Oregon. “We would guide in Alaska in the summer and steelhead fall, winter, and spring.  Two years in we added waterfowl hunts.”

Brian and his friend continued that rotation for ten years. It was great for a guy in his twenties. And Brian adds, “I wouldn’t change any of it, but it’s not particularly sustainable and not very conducive to family or building long-term relationships.”

After a little time away from the river and from the guiding world, Brian contemplated what his next move was.

A friend invited him to Colorado to check out guiding here. Guiding in Colorado rejuvenated him, gave him a different perspective than his experience in Oregon.  The changes in the fishing in Oregon, the increasing pressure on the steelhead rivers, made him consider what a fresh start could look like.

 “Part of the reason I left Oregon is that it’s so overcrowded with guides.  If you want to take clients on the Wilson River, a great steelhead river, you have to be there by 3:30 a.m. Get there later, you’re 150 boats back.”

When asked about the pressure on the South Platte, say at Deckers, Brian grins a little. “That’s not crowded. Crowded means four or five people fishing the same run.”

Brian’s experience in a drift boat stretches for over twenty years.

Professional Guide

Brian has been a fly fishing guide for half of his life. These experiences have all fostered an approach to guiding that can only be described as professional.

I asked Brian how he views guiding now, after 18 years in.

“Guiding is so much more than fishing. You get some young guys now that are great anglers but they haven’t yet developed other areas that are completely necessary for guiding. They don’t have people skills. They don’t have that facilitator personality. They’re not a good coach, a good teacher. In Alaska, because a lot of those clients are pretty high end, I learned how to deliver a professional experience.”

As we finished up our breakfast, I asked Brian what he considers to be a great day on the river, from a guide’s perspective.

“For first timers, my perception of a great day is that they are able to learn to fish effectively and gain independence. If they get their first fish on a fly rod to the net, that’s a great day. But have they learned, too?”

When it comes to more experienced anglers, somebody “who might be more of a numbers guy,” Brian says, “it’s definitely exciting to put a lot of fish in the net.” 

To that last point, when considering numbers of fish and/or delivering a great experience on the water, Brian adds that, “As I’ve gotten older, I think I care a little less about numbers and more about the kind of experience the angler is having.  I might take time to teach a person how to fish with dries, and even though we take some time casting to one fish when we could have caught more by nymphing, there’s an excitement when it all comes together.” 

Start them young and teach them right.

The Outlook

Brian is excited for what 2022 holds in store. He’s been tying up flies to prepare for the season ahead, which looks like it will be busy.

In addition to doing walk-wade trips for Angler’s Covey (and you can book a trip with Brian here), he’ll continue to do float trips with Trout Trickers out of Vail. “I hope to float for 25 or more days in the Spring when the lower Colorado gets into swing.”

As our conversation wrapped up, Brian sat back and then said he’s pretty grateful for all the experiences that have led up to this moment.  He seems to reflect back to his comment earlier about not changing any of it.

“I’m pretty fortunate to be able to make a living doing this.”

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