Tipping Good & Bad Fly Fishing Guides Accordingly

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How to tip your fly fishing guide. Photo By: Louis Cahill

By Kent Klewein

Despite all the content put out over the years, and all the communications between fly anglers on this topic, there still seems to be quite a bit of mystery still out there when it comes to tipping fly fishing guides.

I get many clients that tip above and beyond what’s expected of them. Other times, I’m literally crawling back to my truck with every ounce of energy zapped from instructing and putting my clients on fish, and at the end of the day I’m blessed with a cold empty handshake. Sometimes, there seems to be no reasoning at all with gratuity, most clients seem to get it, but no matter what, there’s always going to be those few that feel gratuity isn’t necessary or are uneducated that it’s customary. All I truly care about is that gratuity is determined and provided to the guide based on customer service and professionalism, and that with any service-oriented job, regardless of the industry, gratuity should be on the radar.

A few weeks ago, one of our loyal Gink & Gasoline followers sent us an email that voiced a few concerns about a fly fishing guide they hired on a recent float trip. Apparently, at the end of the day the follower and his partner were in disagreement about the amount of guide gratuity they should leave. Below is the email and question that was sent to us:

“I would like to get your thoughts on tipping guides. I just came back from a trip to Montana and mentioning no names, I spent a week with a very well-known guide. The trip went well and we caught a lot of fish but his equipment sucked. His Driftboat was a small skiff that he did not want you standing up in to cast, and his Skadden style raft frames front seat came off three times, almost pitching my buddy into the river. Any thoughts on amounts or percentages for tipping would be greatly appreciated.” 

My Reply:

Here’s my opinion on what you told me, but keep in mind I was not there and did not see the water conditions or his boat equipment.

I’d say your guide passed with flying colors on putting you on fish and that should be a big positive. Depending on your skill level your guide probably had to work extra hard to keep you consistently hooked up with fish. On the other hand, it does sound like he failed by showing up with one of his boat seats unsafe and not in proper working condition. That being said, if the equipment failure had just happened, there’s a good chance he might not have had ample time to run into town to get the parts to fix it before your trip. Guiding over the years, I’ve had my fair share of equipment break downs on the road to meet my clients. It actually happens quite often if you drive bumpy gravel roads like I do. Furthermore, many of those Montana guides literally book 30 days or more in a row, which leaves them in situations where their gear may not be at 100%. If it was an old break down and he had time to fix it, it is completely his fault and unacceptable. If it just happened sometimes you have to cut guides some slack, especially if they’re putting you on fish and working hard. If your buddy had added difficulty fishing during the day because of the seat, and the guide didn’t apologize and dictate why it was unfixed, I feel like you have authority to subtract a portion of his gratuity.

A few months ago, one of my tail-light poles on my boat trailer busted a weld on the way into town, and I was about to lose it completely. When my clients showed up, they saw me duck taping everything together so I could make it through the day. They later admitted to me, it had thrown up a red flag to them on my professionalism. Apparently, they found it really hard to believe that the equipment break down had just happened. The point of me telling you my story is that situations like this do happen. It’s important for everyone to understand, S*it almost always shows up at the worst time. We shouldn’t write someone’s professionalism off completely because of a minor set back. If you show up late to meet your guide because you hit the snooze button, does that give your guide the right to perform below his/her ability. Professionalism goes both ways. But the fact that you booked this guy for an entire week, it does look really bad that he didn’t find time to find some sort of a solution to fix the failing boat seat.

As for the guide wanting you to stay seated while fishing, this could have been for multiple reasons. I personally tell my clients to sit down when I’m guiding for several reasons, and as the Captain of the boat, I feel like I have the authority to do so. Below are some possible reasons why your guide may have been asking you to stay seated.

The first reason I tell my clients to sit down is when I’m coming up on rowing a difficult or challenging section of water. By my clients sitting, I have them safe and secure, and it also provides me a clear view downstream, for spotting obstacles. The second reason, is if we are fishing to extremely spooky fish. It’s very popular for western guides to request there clients to sit while fishing. This way they can keep a low profile and be more stealthy when approaching holes, so fish are less likely to be alerted. In some instances, this can really increase your number of takes, and it also helps to increase success for the guy in the back of the boat as well. That being said, if you saw lots of other anglers in other boats standing and catching fish, I would have to say that you’re guide may have been asking you to do something that wasn’t necessary. If I would have been there I could tell you for sure if he was out of line or not. If your buddies safety was at risk from the seat, he was totally in the wrong, because with a faulty seat, it would only make sense that it would be safer to stand and fish.

As for the tip, it sounded like he did good at some aspects of guiding and bad at others. Doesn’t sound like he deserves a top of the line tip but at the same time he shouldn’t be stiffed. $50-$100 tip for a full day with two people is the norm. If the guide did everything right and worked hard, and also tried his best to improve your skills, this is what I expect from my clients. If the guide fell below this in customer service, then I would tip below $50. If he was a complete tard and unprofessional, don’t tip him, but respectfully take the time to tell him why. I know you said you’re guide was well known and he shouldn’t need any explanation, but there are a lot of rookie guides out there that would benefit from client critiquing at the end of trips. Particular in cases that are similar to what you have just brought up.

By all means a client has the right to tip however they feel comfortable. And they should feel no remorse with deducting gratuity for a guide that doesn’t present themselves professionally in every aspect of the job. On the contrary, gratuity should be fair, and provided accordingly to a guide that meets all expectations. If you’re unsure of what gratuity to leave, take the time to ask a couple friends that have been on guide trips. It’s standard to leave 20-30% gratuity for a guide that did a great job.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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26 thoughts on “Tipping Good & Bad Fly Fishing Guides Accordingly

  1. I have taken only guided float in my life. It was a fantastic day of fishing, though I only netted 4 in 8 hours. I also had a few good hook ups that I lost. What success we had was similar to what we saw with others that day. There was even a moment when something went wrong with the anchor and the raft went into a rapid while I had a fish in the yet. My guide handled every moment calmly and effectively. Moreover, from the beginning, I felt like I was fishing with an old friend. It was one of my most memorable days fishing ever. Without reservation, I tipped $100.

  2. A great review on a very touchy topic. I’ve had +90% good luck with guides but every now and then I will get one that is plain lazy or rude.

    On a Madison trip booked out of West Yellowstone shop were with our older fathers on a two boat drift. We pulled into an island for lunch and the guides jumped out of the boats, sat down and started eating their sandwiches. 85 year old George sat in the boat, too deep for him to get out. No assistance was offered, no mention of “lunch is in the cooler” no direction was given regarding how to get out of the boat. “You’re on your own old man, but my sandwich is very tasty!” was the attitude.

    At the end of the day we did tip the guide but my long-term solution is simple but works for me, we never stepped foot back in that shop again.

  3. As a fishing guide I’ve always felt that my tip directly reflects my performance for the day. One of the best practices I’ve come across in if the field is when your client Tips you well at the beginning of the day. I’ve always worked my butt off to earn that tip no matter what. I have used this practice myself and it’s a great way to get off on the right foot to start a good guide client relationship. Many Guides performance can be flat based on years of inconsistent tipping practices where one client gets extra good service and the guide gets compensated with little to no tip. I’m emotionally vested in fly fishing so it’s a passion and a sacrifice to do what you love. So many days it’s ramen noodles at home and filets on the river so you can give that angler his best “day off” ever!

  4. Why do we tip on an already expensive activity? How is guiding a “service” industry? I get to get an annual physical for free, and I do not tip my doctor, which is a far more valuable “service”. I know people who are guides and they make a lot of money. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be guides and would have a different career. .

    • Bill,
      Have you ever worked as a guide? In the Wyoming/Colorado area a typical guide that works for a shop makes around 175$ a day plus whatever they get in tips. Please do the math on that over the course of a month. Yes, most guides work in that field because they enjoy it, but the majority of guides do not “make a lot of money”. The majority of trip money goes to the shop. Lastly, you should tip a quality guide because he or she busts their ass to ensure that you have the best possible experience on your trip. Unlike a doctor who makes a few hundred thousand a year, the guide depends on your tip to eat and sleep in a warm place.

      • A good point Bob. Per your math request, 30 x $175 = $5250. That’s a pretty good monthly wage. 6 months of guiding and you are at $31,500. 12 months of guiding would be $63000, though we both know that is not happening in CO/WY. What am I missing? At 175$ a day, that is more than most in the “service” industry make (waiters, waitresses, etc.). Please help me better understand tipping non-service industry professions. Thanks.

        • Bill,

          You are not considering all of the costs associated with a day of guiding. Primarily gas, shuttle, and lunch. These typically add up to around $100 a day, and more often than not, the guide is 100% responsible for these costs.

          As a guide in Montana myself, I hope that the tip will cover the costs of those expenses, so that I can actually make anywhere close to the numbers you ran. Without the tip, run your numbers again.

        • Bill,
          Most guides work a six day week and very very few guide year round. That spread out over six months is $29,400. That’s before anything is taken out for tax purposes. It’s also important to note that guide don’t receive benefits of any sort. On a daily basis they are also responsible for providing leaders, tippets and flies to their clients. If you think $29,400 is making a sound living in 2018 then I probably can reason with you anyway. Good luck to you this year on the water. Have a great day.

          • I appreciate the details here Bob. Do you tip the person that helps you at Home Depot? Or the guys in the pit changing your oil? Your postal carrier? The employee who hands you your food at a fast food restaurant? The person checking or bagging your groceries. I do not have any data, but I’m willing to bet they are making less than $175/day…
            Where does the out of control tipping end?
            Thanks for the discussion.

          • Hey Big Bill if you want to be that guy, then by all means rag on tipping. I was able to take ONE drift boat trip when I went to Montana. I am not rich, but I took the trip only after making sure I had enough money to tip the guide properly. That is the same way I look at eating out. If you want to be that cheap jerk that all guides and servers talk about, then by all means do you. I want to live my life and not have to regret being an ass.

          • Bill,

            I do tip my postal carrier. He deserves it. And if a Home Depot representative spent the whole day with me, giving me guidance and helping me with my project, I’d top them too. Same thing for an auto mechanic. If the mechanic spent a half day with me, walking me though how to change oil or other particulars of the engine, you’re absolutely right I would tip them too. I don’t see any of that as out of control. I see it as appreciating time spent for improving my knowledge, helping me, and providing a good service. Your examples are apples-to-oranges.

  5. Thanks for the post on an important subject.

    My first experience hiring a professional guide was for a day in New Zealand. The guide was solid, but it was a tough day fishing. Super long leaders, a bit of wind, and being less prepared than I should have been all contributed to my fishing success, or rather, lack of success.

    I blew my best shot of the day with a hook set better suited for bass fishing, but that’s another story altogether. At the end of the day I thanked the guide, but didn’t tip him. I honestly didn’t know I was supposed to and hadn’t thought to ask people ahead of time. My friend talked with me about this after the day and I felt pretty lame. After the embarrassment wore off, I eventually contacted the guide and sent him a tip. Lesson learned thanks to a caring friend.

    That was about eight years ago and a lot of river miles have been fished since that experience. I now have the privilege to take students and the general public to Missoula, Montana 1-2 times a year as part of a university fly-fishing course/program. We use an awesome outfitter for which I have a great deal of respect. We have had the chance to fish with guides that are awesome, great, and sometimes just OK. In fairness, we as clients have likely also been awesome, great, and sometimes just OK. Here are a few thoughts that might be useful to someone:

    1) Communicate with your guide – guides aren’t mind readers. Other than guessing you want to catch fish, they don’t have much to work with if you haven’t talked. Often the client doesn’t get much of a chance to talk with a guide prior to the day on the water, so the ride to the river is a great time to start. Talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish that day, your ability level (be truthful), your weaknesses, etc.

    Continue to communicate throughout the day as things change. If you really want to stand up in the drift boat, you should visit with the guide about it. Perhaps it’s really hard for you to cast from a sitting position because you’ve never done that before. After trying it the guide’s way, perhaps there are some sections of the river that are better suited for standing.

    2) Equipment – as Kent mentioned, many guides are working several days in a row and equipment breaks when it decides to break. Have you ever had a flat tire when you scheduled it go flat? While on the Blackfoot River (one of my favorite rivers) I had a seat back break and nearly toss me into the river. With a lucky bounce off the raft tube, I slid back into the raft. If you are going to be with a guide for several days and there’s an equipment problem impacting your experience, politely discuss this with the guide.

    3) Tips – I’m in a different situation when I bring students and community members to fish in Montana as I’ve pre-arranged with the outfitter to provide his guides a set amount each day. We do this so our clients don’t have to have the same discussion about tips we are having in this blog. We do this to maintain a great relationship with our outfitter and guides. I don’t want to be the guy that brings clients who don’t tip, or who tip poorly.

    In some cases guides probably end up with more than they should and others probably deserve a bit more. I do encourage our guest to provide extra gratuity on top of what we’ve already provided if they feel like they’ve had a great day.

    4) Remember to have fun. We take fishing far too seriously sometimes.

    Sorry for the lengthy post, but I felt like sharing today.

  6. I’d like to follow up on one comment in your reply to that email. You mentioned that some Montana guides book 30 days straight which leaves them little time for performing maintenance on their gear. I’d risk a pretty good bet that guides in the salt do that as well, or they at least are tempted to do that, especially during the tarpon migration. But here’s my point: isn’t it considered part of the “contract” to provide safe, functional equipment? Even if that’s just the skiff, the outboard, the cooler and the seats and cushions? If so, then isn’t it an operating expense to ensure that equipment is in good operating condition? And if taking a day off from guiding to perform routine maintenance should be an expectation. It costs the guide a day’s fee and that’s why it’s an operating expense. Many businesses build that into their operating model – refineries, railroad, mining, buses, the list is long. They’d all love to be able to operate at 100% capacity until something breaks, and some test that model, usually to costly results. Therefore, it seems to me that booking too many days in a row at the cost of maintaining their equipment is no excuse.

  7. As a general rule, should I tip an independent guide who pockets the entire fee less money than a guide who works for a shop owner and only gets a fraction of the fee? Thanks.

    • That’s a great question. The stylist who cuts my hair tells me not to tip her as she owns the salon, but it is “customary” to tip other stylists working there as they rent space. Not that I agree with this either…

    • Rick,
      That’s a great question. It’s important to note that independent guides incur more costs over the season than those that work for shops. An independent guide has to pay for their clients meals, their own annual insurance and state outfitter fees. A guide that works for a shop has all of these costs covered for them. This amounts to several thousand dollars out of pocket.

  8. lol, I don’t think that the guidelines/rules for guide tipping should be written by a guide (or close friends of guides). Of course they are going to advocate for tips, especially for tips upwards of 30% of a already expensive service.
    I can understand that a guide for a shop is making less than an independent guide, but it should also be the guide’s responsibility to not work for an organization that he is being ripped off from. And it is not the customer’s responsibility to pay the guide his/her just dues.
    Someone getting a guide for a full day, at a high price, should be expecting that this person is working hard and getting them into fish. Someone should not be getting a 30% for just doing their agreed upon job. “I’d say your guide passed with flying colors on putting you on fish”… no, I would say that your guide did what you paid them for.

  9. I must be fishing in all the wrong places with these $175/day guides

    A guided day on the Missouri River is $525. My guide has his outfitters license, so we book directly with him. The drive to the river is 500 yards if we are fishing from the Craig ramp or 10 miles if we are dropping in elsewhere. He is great, works hard all day to get us on the risers. He gets another $120 tip. He is getting $645 in cash for the day. Out of that he is paying for lunch, drinks, license fees (his outfitter costs), a few flies we may not have in our vest, gas and the transfer fee for the truck downstream. He is also on the cell phone several times per day, checking on his real estate deals.

    I am happy to pay his fee. He works hard for the money. He is not getting rich and I appreciate what he does for us. But lets not pretend he is poor.

  10. I always tip my guides, I’ve been lucky to have always had great, fun, and hardworking guides. Guys who have busted their asses to put me on fish even though I later blew the shot or could’ve see the fish. I’ve tipped on no fish days because my guide pushed my fat ass around a marsh all day. Equipment failures happen, you never know what someone else is going through. even though they may be a well known guide, that doesn’t mean they don’t have bumps in the road like the rest of us. The trip fee is the trip fee, the tips are bonus. If you decide not to tip your guide, they may choose to be busy “fixing their equipment “ next time you want to book.

  11. Apologies if I’m out of line, but if you are going to call someone out for thinking $30k is a livable wage in 2018, I must question how you think using the word “tard” is remotely acceptable in 2018?

    • Generally the bulk of that money goes to the outfitter, fly shop, or land owner. Sometimes all three. Unless they are independent guides fishing public waters, that’s a small group, guides are a lot like waiters. They’re salary is setup so they are basically working for tips. I’m not saying that’s a good system, but not tipping guides is asking them to work for virtually nothing.

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