Don Kleiner learned to hunt and fish from his father and grandfather growing up in a tiny town on the coast of New Jersey.
Skills like woodcraft and fly casting are second nature to Kleiner, a Master Maine Guide and the executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association, but he’ll tell you his hunting and fishing skills are not the most important part of what makes him (or anyone else) an effective guide:
“People skills. It is straight-out people skills,” said Kleiner.
Guides have been leading people into the Maine woods and onto its rivers and lakes since at least the days of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about his guided trips into the wilderness in “The Maine Woods,” published in 1864.
Guide William Sewall took Teddy Roosevelt into the Maine wilderness in 1877, when the future president was a thin Harvard junior with a weak heart and bad eyes. That trip, and subsequent trips with Sewall, forever changed the young man who would later create America’s first national parks.
Kleiner said in some ways the job hasn’t changed all that much since Sewall and Roosevelt climbed Katahdin. The role of guides is still to allow the inexperienced to safely enjoy the natural world, whether that means hunting moose, catching trout, or canoeing the Allagash River.
As people spend more time in front of screens and children grow up with what author Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder,” the role of the Registered Maine Guide may be more important than ever.
Bonnie Holding, director of education and information at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said that she is seeing a renewed interest in the outdoors, perhaps due in part to the increase in screen time that is ingrained in modern life.
“I think I am seeing more people wanting to get outside,” said Holding, a Master Maine Guide who has guided trout fishing trips for more than 30 years. “All these handheld devices are fine, but I think this new generation wants to be outside.”
If there is a growing hunger for the outdoors, that’s good news for Maine with its storied natural beauty. Maine’s brand as a state of opportunity to enjoy nature in remote settings is historically linked to guides.
In 1897, when the Maine Legislature formalized the role of guides by requiring them to register, Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby, a Maine woman famous for her fishing ability as well as her syndicated column on fishing in Maine lakes and streams, received license number one. By recognizing Crosby, the Legislature also acknowledged her role in helping to grow the state’s tourism economy and the importance of guides, often the gatekeepers of Maine’s natural wonders.
In that first year, 1,700 people registered as Maine Guides. Today there are more than 4,000.
Becoming a guide today involves written and oral tests as well as certification in first aide. Applicants must qualify in one or more of five specialties: hunting, fishing, tidewater fishing, sea kayaking, and recreational.
Guides may qualify as Master Guides after a minimum of five years’ experience in at least one specialization.
For Kleiner, becoming a guide was a natural outgrowth of his love of the outdoors. After working his way through college digging clams, Kleiner, who earned a degree in environmental science, took a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Brigantine National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey.
There, his ability to handle a boat in tidal waters served him well. One day his boss asked him if he had ever considered working as a guide for duck hunters. It was a natural fit for Kleiner, who spent as much time hunting as possible.
After moving to Maine with his wife, Argy Nestor, Kleiner worked first as a rafting guide and then started guiding canoe trips from his headquarters in Union. Those canoe trips brought him into contact with folks who wanted to fish and it wasn’t long before he connected with an outfitter who did upland bird hunting and added that to his growing guiding service.
An effective guide must know when to help a client with a casting technique, point out a good place to cast a fly, or to just stand back and stay out of the way.
Earlier this summer, Kleiner was one of several guides hired by a grandfather to take his grandchildren fishing at the storied Libby Camps in northern Maine.
At the end of a weekend of fishing, the grandfather brought the guides together and thanked them for the opportunities they had provided his grandchildren to connect with each other.
Kleiner said that experience summed up a successful trip. The job of keeping the young people safe and helping them have a successful fishing trip was important, said Kleiner, but it happened in the background. It was only part of the job.
The most important thing the guides did was allow the man’s grandchildren to enjoy fishing and each other’s company without getting in the way of the experience. “You put two kids in a boat with a guide, and they are going to learn something about each other,” he said.
A successful trip is not about the number of fish a client catches, it is about the conversation, the learning, and the many small but important things that happen while trying to catch a fish.
“I would be lying to you if I told you I was conscious about it. It just happens when the conditions are right and they are doing something out of their element completely,” Kleiner said.
Kleiner offers a three hour fishing trip, which he considers the minimum required to get a client onto the water and into a situation where they have a reasonable chance of success. Today, because some clients have little experience in the outdoors, they come back from the trip exhausted. Kleiner said there is a market for a two hour trip, which he has resisted offering because he worries his clients won’t have enough time to be successful.
“I think it is just being outside. People are not used to it,” said Kleiner. “They would like it to be shorter and happen faster.”
One of the things he enjoys most is watching a client, especially a young person, develop a skill that could lead to a lifetime of enjoying the outdoors.
“It is fun to see people be successful at something they signed up to do but they had no idea they were capable of,” he said.
Holding agreed. She said most guides are in the business because they enjoy being outdoors. Becoming a guide not only gives them the chance to be outdoors themselves, but to pass on that enthusiasm.
“Every time you do that, you are creating memories,” she said.
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