The Life Of a Guide- A passionate Pursuit

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By Matt Cornell

I was fortunate enough to be exposed to fishing and the outdoors at a very young age. My father, though not a professional angler or a guide, was an outdoor enthusiast and the primary source of inspiration for me as a young angler and has remained as such throughout my career.

I truly believe that his love of fishing and the outdoors without over indulging into it was the perfect catalyst for me to take my passion to the next level and into my professional life as an adult. He always took me out just enough so that I never got bored or lost interest and we experienced just enough success for me to always fondly look forward to the next outing without hesitation.

In the late 1950’s my father and his brother purchased a waterfront lot in the north Whiteshell on the banks of the Winnipeg River. Though we spent the majority of our lives in Winnipeg it was this retreat at Barrier Bay that held me. I spent all my young summers there, start to finish. When I was 11 my father bought me a small 12 foot boat with a 9.9hp motor. And that was it, the beginning of the end for me and all my mother’s hopes of raising a doctor or a lawyer or some other genre of professional (well, maybe not a lawyer).

Finally I was free, free to explore the river system and all the spots I had wondered about that we drove by regularly. Free to try all the techniques I had watched on the various fishing programs that filled my TV time. Free to fish, to find fish, to catch fish, to lose fish, and repeat it all the next day. Free to get away from the crowds and see what was under the trees, off the points, in the holes, discovering all the secrets the river had hidden from me up to then. It was a door that would never close. As time went by, boats got bigger, faster, fishing became angling and with its serene escape it brought intensity, education and inevitable heartbreak.

In the summer of 1997 I took a leap of faith and accepted my first job as a professional fishing guide. Come June of that year I found myself on a plane to the infamous Great Bear Lake where I was to be helping anglers from across the continent pursue their own angling dreams in the heart of the NWT’s pristine waters. It was a lesson in humility I wouldn’t soon forget. I was 18 years old at the helm of a boat on one of the world’s largest fresh water bodies and in the company of a number of other guides that had been at it for years. The idea that I felt intimated would be an understatement. I had no idea what the north had in store for me.

That first fateful summer on Great Bear I only had a few groups of clients since the lodge rarely ran at 100% capacity and I was the obvious low man on the totem pole. Though I resented it then, in hindsight it was probably a good thing. That bit of moderation planted a seed that would never stop growing, even today, 20 years later it grips with the same tenacity as it did after my first season as a “Guide”.

When I returned the following year I would be ready or at least prepared. The next couple seasons were cornerstone in my guiding career and equally in my personal life. It wasn’t easy, not even close to easy, but it was fruitful, satisfying and rewarding, both financially and emotionally. I was having fun on the water, catching big fish and enjoying the nights after the boat was docked. I had found a niche for my interests and a platform that worked to express them. The next few years would be filled with big trout, Char, Grayling and all sorts of adventure. It was a dream job, but it only lasted 7 weeks…and that was problematic.

To offset the seasonally declining bank balances I took other guiding jobs in the spring before the summer fishing season and some after that would get me out with people in the woods and the water. This is a key piece of the puzzle for anyone looking to work professionally as guide, you need to extend your season as long as possible, by whatever means necessary. For me that meant, hunting and fishing together.

Surprisingly the two aren’t in each other’s company as often as the industry would have you believe. It was a delineation I wasn’t aware of until a few years into my career and one that eventually led me to start my own outfitting business here in Manitoba.  For a number of reasons (most of which were my own doing) after the summer of 2001 my time at Great Bear had run its course. I needed a new guiding environment and a fresh start. In January of the following year I got a call from a fellow named Tim O’Shaughnessy, who was at that time the General Manager of Scott Lake Lodge, situated on the border of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. He asked if I’d sit down with him and consider joining the Scott Lake Guide team. A month later I was officially a member of the Scott Lake team, a pivotal moment for me and my future as a fishing guide.

Scott Lake, as a waterbody, was extremely difficult. It’s big, has thousands of islands, channels and tons of reefs. The water is extremely clear which doesn’t always lend well to pike fishing but it certainly makes it more exciting watching the strikes from those trophy fish 100 feet out. But most importantly from an angling perspective, it made you learn. You had to fish with an attention to detail that I hadn’t yet experienced. Everything had to be perfect. The wind, the drift, the bait, your knots the angle of the retrieves etc. These are things I now consider every time I hit the water, almost subconsciously, but back 15 years ago, when I was essentially still cutting my teeth, it was a whole new world of angling variables.

I spent 10 full seasons at Scott Lake. Guiding hunting in the spring and the fall on either end of their 3 month season. And, by the summer of 2011 I was beginning to feel it. The guiding hunting in the spring and fall meant that from April 1st to December 10th of every year there were less than 10 days in that stretch that I wasn’t in the field, in the woods or on the water. When combined with winter ice fishing and instructing survival and rescue courses out of Yellowknife (a job I took to keep busy throughout the winter) it led to inevitable fatigue, a level of which I had never before experienced and soon began to affect me in my guiding duties. Once again, I needed a fresh start or a break or something to interrupt the cycle I had been in for over a decade. In 2012 I decided to take the summer off guiding and concentrate more on fishing myself, for fun. In the end I found what I was missing and what I needed to recover, though it wasn’t what I expected. Oddly enough, it wasn’t just the fishing that I was missing, it was the act of guiding. Not just guiding in the sense that you were fishing for a living but the act of guiding, of educating, of sharing knowledge and watching someone in the moment take that instruction and use it in their own personal evolution as an angler. I’m not sure if it was something I had learned from a decade and a half in the industry or maybe something that had deeper roots from when my father was teaching me to cast or jig etc. Regardless of its origin it was there, in full force.

I look back now on that summer of reflection as being absolutely necessary in getting me where I am today. The following year I re opened my local outfitting business with the full intention of using whatever talent or skill I had as an angler, as a guide, to share the sport that I’ve loved for as long as I can remember to help people discover the outdoors through angling. My goal now is to give back to the sport, all the growth and satisfaction it’s afforded me throughout my life.

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