Phil Jellen believes we only have one life to live and it should be spent pursuing what we love. For him, that is catching trout and teaching others how to do it.
Whenever Jellen isn’t fishing he is thinking about or studying it. However, he wasn’t always so happy and spent many years feeling unsatisfied as a middle school science teacher. The pandemic was a gift for Jellen as it gave him time to think and the gumption to take a leap. While isolated at home in rural Maine, he began to reflect on what had made him jump for joy as a child. It was fishing, an interest that he’d had all along and yet had been ignored by his family. When Jellen rediscovered his passion through a girlfriend, who also practiced it, he realized it was exactly the right road to invest in. From there, he relocated to North Carolina and after surviving a few twists and turns was offered a job as a guide at Curtis Wright Outfitters. Today, he happily gives tours to North Carolina tourists, corporate groups, and fellow fishing fanatics several times per week. Jellen is grateful to be in nature every day, as it grounds him. He is thankful that he followed his instincts and found a profession that helps him connect to others, reset, and stay in tune with the natural rhythm of the earth.
Was nature a big part of your upbringing in Edwardsville, Illinois?
It definitely was but never as much as I wanted it to be. My parents had a big house on three acres of land. I had quite a bit of space on which I could wander, build forts, and play in the creek. All of those activities stoked my interest in animals, particularly reptiles and amphibians. I began reading field guides and books about ecology cover to cover. After studying the maps, I would go out into the woods to find the animals I had read about. Similar to the kids I would eventually teach as a schoolteacher who knew everything there was to know about salamanders or dinosaurs, I became an expert in the animals that intrigued me.
What happened next?
From there, I went to college and majored in Herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians. Working as a herpetologist in the field led me to realize that I could do much more for conservation as a teacher. Charismatic megafauna, like pandas and blue whales, are the types of things people typically want to save because they are cute. Yet, there are so many other animals that need our help and it became my goal to spread the word about that.
What was your experience as a middle school teacher like?
Teaching middle school felt like punishment. While I got through it by taking the kids’ behavior with a grain of salt, I felt that I was treated very badly. Another downside was the fact that the job felt like Groundhog Day. I would build strong relationships with some students then they would graduate. You would have to start all over again with the new batch. It got old.
So, what revelation led you to become a fishing guide?
The pandemic was a blessing for me. At one time the song “I don’t need work, I need money” could have been my anthem because I just dreaded going to school. For nine straight years, I felt burned out. The year 2020 was the first time that I thought I don’t need this shit. That is when I remembered how much I wanted to fish as a child and decided to make a change.
They always say if you’re an adult and struggling to go back to what you loved as a child.
Exactly. Parents, listen to your kids. They know what they want out of life. I thought I was depressed because I had absolutely no energy. I would work and then go to bed. I didn’t even have the energy to date cool women. The day I decided to move to North Carolina, where I have family and knew I could fish year-round, everything changed.
How did you find your current job as a fishing guide?
I went out with a guide who said to me after our trip, “You should think about doing this too.” While being an actual fishing guide felt like a fantasy job, I went for it. I started to learn about the rivers by going out on them every day in different seasons and weather. How does this stretch fish in the morning or when it’s raining? Where can you put your boat in the water safely? As much as I would have liked, there are no shortcuts. I learned by doing and documenting.
What is something most people don’t know about fishing?
People tend to get really attached to their guides because they build strong bonds similar to a patient and therapist. It is a wonderful way to meet new friends. The best compliment I have gotten from one of my students is, “I don’t know anyone who likes to fish as much as you do.”
Who are in the groups that you typically take out?
The vast majority are beginners who are visiting North Carolina for the first time. They are fun, interested in learning a technical skill, and easy to teach because they are in a curious mindset. It is so different from middle school students who don’t want to be in a science class. I enjoy absolutely everything about what I do and feel that I truly have found my ideal profession. Every day is different and unique. I get to solve problems constantly, which keeps me on my toes. I also don’t care if it is raining or snowing because all I want to do is be outside. I am not one to be domesticated. I would rather live the way we evolved, which is waking with the sun and braving the elements.
Any last words?
I want to encourage more people to fish with or without a guide. Just get a license so it’s legal!
Book a tour with Curtis Wright Outfitters and request Phil here
Photography by Barron Northrup
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