Sunday Classic / Tipping Good & Bad Fly Fishing Guides Accordingly

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

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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43 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Tipping Good & Bad Fly Fishing Guides Accordingly

  1. Why are guides still struggling with this. In 2015 most businesses are service businesses and you are going to see tips get fewer as we go. Half of my business activity is direct service, some commercial and some retail. In out retail section the guys, and I work in some terrible conditions, we often get jobs because of expertise or others have failed, so we have great reputations. We rarely see tips. And if we do it’s not 20-30%.

    Once upon a time our clients worked for single employers with regular pay and benifits. Now they are more likely to be independent contractors and they don’t see tips or bonuses. What they do see are service charges, service fees, fuel surcharges, and handling fees. Our new chedit card system at the shop now adds the discount rate to the amount the customers pays instead of subtracting it to ours. A number of big retail and service businesses have tried all-in pricing with lousy results. So that doesn’t work.

    To be honest I’m amazed guides are still being tipped at the frequency and rates you are, not that you don’t earn it. Eventually you are going to have to come up with a new business model that fits better with how today’s customers are comfortable paying and you can sustain your businesses. I know it sucks.

  2. I always figure that people tip what they can afford and try not to judge based on that amount. I always approach guiding with teaching and having a great experience on the water. I think it’s important that you sincerely share in the joy of the day with my your clients. I’ve been tipped very well and tipped on the low end, but I do believe that they all tipped me what they could afford.

    • Great point. Some guys save all year to take a few days with a guide, others slap it down and don’t think about it. The client is usually paying to get there, paying for lodging and food, etc. I usually won’t tip a guy that is a sole proprietor as much as a guy at the Green that I know isn’t getting the lion share of the fee.

    • As someone who saves all year to go on a guided trip, I believe the tips should be budgeted and saved for just like the fee for the guide.

  3. You bring up many good points~ both for the guide and the client to consider. Working many sectors of the service industry, I can see the lack of consistency and confusion across the board. Waiting/bartending often I see guests who still believe $1 can buy you a gallon of milk, loaf of bread and a gallon of gas. These things have increased dramatically in the past couple of decades, but the server still makes $2.65/hr. As an independent guide, I do all the legwork, from booking, making lunches, checking weather, water conditions, local events and even finding hotels for clients. Besides the truck, boat, insurance, rods, reels and gear/flies/line tippet maintenance~ A LOT of work goes into a days float. How far above and beyond the client works at that very moment to put you on fish, should be primary consideration. Honestly, I have had tips when I never even thought I deserved one, fish never showed, High pressure, terrible wind, etc. other occasions, like coordinating four guides and boats during hex season with a group of clients that had ZERO experience and nothing but the empty cold handshake and ‘Thanks’. I doubt we will ever see a better model, especially across the country, simply because the fishing varies greatly from Michigan to California to Montana/Wyoming/Utah/Colorado to Alaska…
    If your client provides a pleasant experience, memorable day, informative and genuine float, you should take that into consideration. Tight Lines,

  4. so what is the proper percentage do you give a guide fly fish america did a article on it once and I lost it I won a guided trip and tipped her fifty dollars she was delighted because she made no real money that day on another ocasion I hired a guide I told him show me what to do and how to do it but make sure my niece catches fish and has a good time he did exactly what I asked of him and gave him one hundred dollars plus I broke my rod and he insitted that I bough his hlf heartedly I did for the next week and gave him another hundred for his kindness

  5. Honestly, customers have to ask themselves if they are after a tourist ‘host guide’ on the river or a fisherman’s fishing guide on the river. The nice stuff is just that. Nice. If you are after everything in working order, a nice website, a glass of wine, all gear working, and Bambi prancing with a shiny rack, that’s great. But sh*t happens. If you want someone who works his or her ass off and stays on the water until whatever makes sense, every day sacrificing his cuddle time with his wife and kids or beer time with his friends, or knowing that he’ll be tired-as tomorrow and “damnit I can’t not stay out for these folks” even though tomorrow is another day of 150 guiding this season… well, I’d put up with a broken anything, a not working something. Do I want a guide dialled in and working his ass off or a guide that spends his time fuddling with the non-life threatening repairs but has to be home by 6pm to take care of them? Seriously, are we fishing or are we fluffing pillows?

    • I’m not a guide but in my business (and most others) we ask our customers what they are looking for and their budget. It’s called qualifying and then if we come to terms and I have no problems walking away from a bad deal, we work to meet or exceed their exceptations. We have stated prices for products, supplies and service rates that’s what we expect to be paid.

      This conversation has been going on between guides for years. It was different when guides just put the cash in their pocket at the end of the day. Today guides are running legitimate businesses. You guys work your butts off and you know what it costs to keep your equipment up and pay the bills.

      I’m a lousy businessman but even I know you can’t let your customers set the final price after the job is completed, even if they want to be fair they don’t know the numbers. My guess is if you skipped the tips and raised your rates 20% you would have to lose 40% of your business before your net profit goes down.

      Why are you guys still putting yourselves through this?

      • This exactly I have yet to understand why those (guides) especially the independent flats guys do not just set the price for the day with the “tip” included. They know their operating cost and how much they want to make at the end of the day. Like any other fee based business, you chose your rate and let the market dictate adjustments as needed. I have buddies who guide and I know they pick and chose the effort based off the tip they expect to get. Wrong way about things in my opinion but if you have enough business do as you please I suppose. When i have posed the question about raising rates to the eliminate the tip equation there is not a solid rebuttal. Most common reply is they will look more expensive then the competition. I understand for the guys who are working for an outfitter they need the tip but at least those places typically outline that these guys are counting on something additional (assuming it went well). It almost like you should lay out a hundred dollar bill up front with the said guide and if the day is awesome and he/she is great leave it or add more but if the guys is an a** or whatever other nuance can ruin a good day strip some off as the day goes. I think the flat fee would remove the headache for both the customer and the guide. Levels the playing field to focus on fishing and leaves the money bs out of the equation as the fee is set.

        (disclaimer I own a skiff and tow it regularly to various places so not much of an issue for me. however I do go on guided trips and I do tip 20% to play the game.)

  6. Anymore, I fish alone. I enjoy my time on the water, weather I’m trout fishing, or fishing the salt. I’ve been on a few charter trips…………Never again. Personally I find the tip is the central focus of the entire trip. It’s like Woody Allen telling Annie Hall……….lets get the kiss over with so we can enjoy the rest of the night. I’m not going to go on and on, because I don’t want to argue, or seem to be a problem, but I find with many fishing adventures it’s all about the TIP! I’ve caught plenty of fish, and will continue to catch fish wherever I go. Some guide pointing out things to me I already know, or treating me like a child who has never seen a fish before is annoying. I would rather catch no fish, enjoy my day, realize my own shortcomings in a new place………then ever go on a guide trip again, because it’s not about anything except the tip. If it wasn’t, why is it always talked about. With all due respect, I’ve read the same response at least 50 times on different fishing sites, and yet it gets reposted over and over again with a different author every season. I fish alone. I’m pretty capable of doing it all on my own. After all, those who can do, those who can’t teach, those that do neither administrate. Not trying to be a wise guy, I’ve just seen the topic so many times, I hate it.

    • You’re funny. I guide but also am guided and I feel the same. You really have to get a feel for your potential guide and be clear on who they are and what they offer…how they are going to run things on the water. I agree with you.

  7. I have this discussion with guides I know very well. I tell them I don’t understand why they don’t just tell me what they want up front so I can budget a trip. I understand that some people don’t tip in a restaurant, service slow, rude, too intervening, but with fishing you know who is trying or just back sitting on their ass. If they are switching flies quickly, pointing out little nuances about the water, he is doing his job, if he is unfriendly, doesn’t offer advice, doesn’t act like he cares you won’t see him again give a little tip. If he does his job, is prepared, not his fault you came on the full moon, rained 6 inches yesterday, your unlucky vacation pick, tip him well

  8. I have only used fishing guides since starting fly fishing. I always use the same one and I always tip well from what i have read. I do not base it on how many fish I catch but rather, since I am beginning, how much I learn. I know he works his butt off to get my no talent self some fish. Last trip i just had him take my son. They two sent a lot of pictures : ( I returned the favor showing a pic of three wolves sitting across the creek from me. no fish for me though. No, I do not go to the spots he takes us even though he said it was ok. i just ask at the flyshop and get the same info available to others.

  9. I agree with a lot of what some of you have said. Here’s my perspective as a part time guide. When I look at prices around the industry, I am a little surprised how expensive the rates are. 400$ to float a river is substantial. 600-700$ to cruise around in a flats boat…That includes a lot of extras like lunch and…actually I don’t know what else. So, I decided I want to keep rates low for a multitude of reasons but specifically all these “extras” like a gourmet meal. I am not interested in preparing your lunch. I really am not. I would actually feel somewhat bitter doing that. So I don’t provide lunches or whatever else accounts for the extras of hundreds of dollars that get tacked onto the price. I won’t put myself or the client through it. I am a fishing guide, not a cook. I actually fish while guiding. Some of you may be rolling your eyes but I make up the rules for my life and do what it is I want to do. I will also not put myself in a position where I am dependent on a tip. Either, work that desired amount into the base cost or let go of all the service fluff. I am an independent, part time guide, so I can afford to be so stubborn but no one wants to be a 50 year old runaround trying to satisfy every need of the city slicker. I just do what I want to do and people actually appreciate that. There is a feeling of genuine-ness behind the approach.

  10. With all due respect if you are fishing while you are guiding please get out of the business of guiding!!!! You have been hired as a GUIDE and that means your undivided attention should be on your client(s) not the next swirl or rise!!!!!!!!!!!! Does that mean if you get a really competent client as a customer and he or she shows you some cool things during the day that expands your knowledge that you should pay or tip them????Guide correctly and you might learn a few things that will make you a better fly fisher when you are on your own.

  11. ‘there’s always going to be those few that feel gratuity isn’t necessary’

    Umm, gratuity is not necessary. the only thing that is necessary is to pay the guide his required fee.


    ” If he was a complete tard and unprofessional…”

    Could that sentence be any more ironic??

    Tard? Really? You mean like retarded? Or mentally retarded?? C’mon Kent, you’re not in 5th grade anymore. People no longer use that word…especially professionals… because it’s completely offensive. Thinking of some parent with a kid with down’s syndrome reading this makes my stomach turn.

    You’d get less than a $50 tip from me for this article….


  12. I have only been fly fishing for a year but have already spent alot of time on the water. I have hired a guide twice: once as a rank beginner near my home in Massachusetts and in July of this year in Steamboat on the Yampa. Both were wading trips. My skills improved greatly after each trip.

    I have two comments/observations/questions.

    First, why not just price the trip without the expectation of a tip? Advertise it that way. I would rather just pay what you think is fair rather than negotiating the awkward, unwritten social contract that tipping requires. I bet alot of people, and especially beginner’s would prefer it. If I am happy at the end I will praise you and/or hire you again. If not . . . . see ya.

    Second, as someone who needs a guide in the first place I have felt both times that I would benefit GREATLY and learn alot from fishing alongside the guide. I would like to watch how they solve problems, set up and position themselves for a presentation, read water, cast, move etc. There is a certain level of athletic, body-in-space intelligence that a good fly fisher has that can be learned by mimicking. I know who the best fishers are on my home water and I take every opportunity to observe them . . . . but it is always at a distance and I am not going to disturb them by asking questions.

    • I think you would be surprised how willing some of those best fishermen would be willing to help you out if you simply say hi and ask.

      • Every one of them is super helpful but I usually chat in the parking lot before or after . . . . or hiking in or out. I would NEVER disturb someone on the water unless invited.

        That is why I say I would gladly pay a more experienced person to fish WITH me.

        I don’t need a guide to tie on my fly etc. I need coaching.

        • Ted P I think what you are looking for is a school or clinic. A lot of shops, lodges TU and fff chapters and council put them on. They vary in degree of intensity and skill level. The ones I have been involved with have usually staffed by guides or experienced instructors. If they are done right and they usually are everyone has a great time.

          The less training the guide has to do on the stream the more you’ll enjoy floating or wading with a great guide.

          • Nope. You’re incorrect. I’ve done that and it is NOTHING like what I’m talking about. You are missing the point.

            If I just wanted to catch alot of fish I would rent a charter and go out of the Keys.

            Less training . . . really?

            The most interesting fishers I’ve met are the old hands who are still training themselves, despite their success.

            I am sure plenty of guides can put me on fish. Big whoop. A guide who is willing to share how they approach the puzzle is way more interesting to me.

    • Ted, I’m in (was) in your same position. I hired a great guide my 3rd time out on the water and at one point kind of wished that he would have started fishing as well, just so I could see in person how it’s supposed to be done. He was great though and I’ll be using him again.

      I didn’t research tipping on guiding services and it was obvious he was freelance so I just asked him at the end of the day “I’m new to this so do people usually tip you?. His response was “It’s really up to you. Some do, some don’t” It didn’t make it any easier for me, but since I learned so much from him that day and he put me on some fish, I gave him 20%.

      I think for someone like me that lives in the city and can’t get out every other day or even every other weekend, hiring a guide to act as more of a teacher is truly invaluable. I just wish they were all like the first guy I got.

  13. Can someone break down the cost of a guided trip? If I am paying $450 for a “full day” on the water, what is the breakdown in cost? How much does the guide actually get if not independent? How much does the shop take? What are the costs we do not see: outfitter license, guide license, insurance, gas, shuttle, boat cost, first aid training? I think if I knew what a guide actually took home, I would be more willing to tip on a job well done. But if an independent guide makes $450 in a day (to me that is $56/hr), way more money than I make. That is a lot of money to row an experienced flyfisherman down the river…

    • Good question. Here is how I figure it…. Our trips cost $450. The outfitters takes 15%, so I get 382.50. I figure I spend 75 dollars per trip on gas (we live a ways from the river), 20 bucks on shuttle, 25-30 on lunches. Also we use all my flies, tippet, weight, etc… I figure it costs me 150 per day to guide, so my take home is $230-240 per day. At ten hour days in the summer, that is $24 dollars an hour. Good wage??? Yes, if you like what you do.

    • Well for starters you’re way off assuming the guide’s work day is 8 hours long. He might have to tolerate you in his boat for 8 hours, but there’s usually a couple hours of work on either side of your trip, so let’s bump that up to 12 hours a day.

    • I used to have the same opinion. $450 a day to go fish? But my wife bought me a day with a well-known guide on the Deschutes and through conversation and a little noodling of my own it turns out that even good guides aren’t pocketing anywhere near $56/hr. A nice drift boat is $10K,a raft is a little cheaper, but not by much. This guide has both. Guide says he goes through a set of 6 ply tires every year. His boat and trailer take a beating on the road…every day. So shocks and trailer repair at a much higher occurrence than regular guys fishing. The crazy things are the “non-billable” hours. This guide had the boat in the water, rigged and waiting on us 45 minutes before daylight, fishes us until dark (solid 12+ hours on the water), trailers the boat, and drives us back to camp and drops us off, then has likely another 45 minutes to get back home so he can start getting ready for the next morning. I guessing it’s a 14-16 hour day, every day he guides. He fished two of us for $550, so best case scenario for him is under $40/hr without accounting for a single cost; gas, food, shuttle, insurance, flies, leader, much less the overhead of running a business. So if you think a guide is laughing all the way to the bank, I’m guessing they’re not. All this without mentioning the long hours and I’m sure occasional weird day with clients where nothing clicks. I think it would be a difficult job for what ultimately is not a lot of pay, or job security for that matter.

        • I do and I did. And I’ll elaborate on why I tip. A guide’s life, at first blush, looks like a cake job doing what we all love; but I think it’s a lot tougher mentally and physically than first impressions reveal. At times it has got to be so boring, especially steelhead guiding. At certain times of year guides must, I assume, fall in to a pattern working similar if not the same series of runs day after day. I think it’s got to be tough to have the fortitude to keep yourself focused on providing a customer experience on day 30. I think guides make sacrifices that many others don’t in terms of their time and attention. I have a job where it is tempting to kick it in to autopilot, I have to force myself to stay present, and it’s difficult a great deal of the time. I tip the guides because I’m certain it’s a job I could not do well, and I believe that my tip acknowledges not only their experience, but the unseen effort as well.

          • The fishing guides I know are the hardest working folks I’ve ever seen. Most of them just make enough to get by. End the end, tipping is a sign of character.

  14. If you pay a person the amount of money they ask for why would you give him more at the end of the day for doing what he agreed to do in the first place. He’s not working for tips, like a waiter.

  15. Slightly off topic, but what annoys me just as much as “the tip” is the fact that guides don’t accept credit cards. Haven’t they heard of Square?

    By the way it’s got tipping built in…

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