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Victor, Idaho - Jackson, Wyoming
Kevin is a passionate fishing guide and photographer who specializes in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

October 27, 2009

Why Do We Have To Tip Fishing Guides?

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Why Do We Have to Tip Guides?

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Question: The question of how much to tip a guide has always plagued me, and that got me thinking, “Why do we have to tip at all?” I don’t tip my auto mechanic or the plumber who comes to fix my sink. They charge what they have to charge to stay in business, and if they do a crappy job, I hire someone else the next time. Why can’t guides operate like that?

Charlie G., Eureka, MO

Discount Flies

Answer: This is a question that often comes up during discussions about tipping guides. The truth of the matter is that many people don’t like being forced to make a financial decision based on a nebulous “value” such as the quality of guiding. There are simply too many variables involved. For instance, on a tough fishing day, a guide might work his ass off to put you over just a couple fish, whereas some days you’ll catch 20 without the guide breaking a sweat. Which guy deserves the better tip? What makes a guide good, anyway? Is it just a numbers game, the quality of his shore lunch, the entertainment value of his conversation?

When you’re tipping a waitress, all you have to do is look at the bill and do a little financial calculation. When I was a waiter, however, I came to believe that 99 percent of diners don’t tip based on actual performance, unless your service was exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. People are just either “twenty-percenters” or “fifteen percenters” by nature. And since a guiding tip has not traditionally been tied to the cost of the trip—which can vary widely by destination—anglers are left to figure out a more complex calculation.

Marshall Cutchin’s excellent article on tipping offers some good general guidelines to help anglers negotiate this frustrating process, but I’ve talked to many folks who would like to simply remove the “tipping angst” from the process altogether. If the guide would simply charge more and not expect a tip, they argue, everything would be easier and above-board.

So I asked several guides what they thought of the idea, and here’s what they had to say. The names of the guides have been withheld to protect their identities. We’re talking about their livelihoods here, after all.

Outfitter/Guide #1: I'd like to think that guiding follows your auto-mechanic example, but it doesn't seem to. You'd think the guides who are rude or incompetent or totally disorganized would eventually lose their clientele and drop out of the business, but I see a lot of those guys in the field year after year, and they appear to be just as busy as everyone else.

I have had people in the industry suggest that better or more experienced guides should just charge a higher rate—that clients would be willing to pay the extra money, and this would allow the guide to dispense with tipping. But I don't think many of us have enough clients who recognize our value to pay this kind of surcharge above the going rate. And I don't think that would play well within the guide community. I imagine plenty of the excellent guides who do trips for my outfitting business would be offended (or pissed off or at least peeved) if I charged more for my trips than I do for theirs, just because I have 20 years of experience on them.

Guide #3: You may have a point, but the custom of tipping is now doctrine—and a good doctrine, in my eyes. Few things feel better than a hard-earned tip from somebody who noticed and cared. I also think that a tip is how you get paid for all the work you do when you’re not on the clock—scouting, learning an area on a day off, or otherwise enriching the basic guiding experience.

Guide #4: I work for an outfitter who already charges $550 for a full-day float in peak season, so it would be hard to raise the price even higher to make tipping unnecessary. That said, the tip should never cross your mind until you hit the burger stand on the way home or buy flies the next morning.

Guide #5: I would not take tipping out of the question, and here is why: I already get paid the rate I need to make the trip time worthy. Tipping is just a way for the customer to say you did your job above and beyond and this is a little something extra. But a tip is a nice way for them to say we would like you to restock the $6.00 Crease Flies we lost (all 5 of them) or the $15.00 Lucky Craft lures we broke off (all 3 of them). That is NOT priced in the fee I charge.

Guide #6: I couldn’t raise my price to cover the tip because the guy down the street will keep his price at $450 and undersell me.

What do you think? Would you be willing pay an extra $100 to get the guide with 20 years experience instead of the fuzz-lipped kid who’s trying to make money for college? Or do you figure that the fishing is easy enough on the Yellowstone or the Frying Pan that you don’t need that extra knowledge?

Writer Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. You can email your fly fishing questions to Phil at Copyright © 2009

How to tip fishing guides

How to Tip Fishing Guides

by Marshall Cutchin

The difference between a meager tip and an excessive gratuity is a puzzle to many traveling fly fishers. Read this guide to accepted practice before planning your next trip.
How to Tip Your Fishing Guide
photo by McNair Evans

A STORY I like to tell about tipping involves a gentleman known among his friends, appropriately, as Wild Phil. Phil used to place a $100 bill in plain sight on the console of my skiff, and whenever he jumped a tarpon, he would get down and hand me the hundred dollars. One day, after we had jumped 9 tarpon in just a couple of hours, I was struck by the relative absurdity of this relationship, and I said, "Phil, you don't need to be so generous."

Phil thought about this for a few seconds, then said, "You're right. I want you to know that I'm grateful. But I don't want you to think I'm stupid."

And so it is with tipping and fishing. Understand a little bit about how your guide, or lodge personnel, or captain are compensated and, within general expectations, follow your instinct.

General Guidelines

In all cases, if you are using a booking service or know someone who has fished the location before, ask. You'll avoid uncomfortable moments like a bartender in New Zealand refusing your $10 tip ("Why don't you just buy a round for the bar, mate?").

With the amount of traveling fly fishers do, it's surprising that there aren't well-publicized standards for tipping guides — something like the $1-to-$2 per bag "rule" for airport skycaps and hotel bellmen in the U.S. But just as guides and lodges in different parts of the world charge different rates for the same services, they can also have very different expectations of what makes a fair gratuity.

You may have some fixed rules of your own, like 15 percent for service people, or 20 percent if they've done an outstanding job. But following those rules in all foreign countries may do a disservice to other anglers and to lodge management. And what do you do at a lodge where half a dozen people are involved in ensuring the quality of your visit? Or maybe you've heard that in some parts of the world, T-shirts and fishing lures are more meaningful than cash. And what about that obnoxious bass guide in Florida who didn't like fly fishers because he couldn't tack on his normal "backlash" fee? ("Wind knot fees," you suggested under your breath.)

The short answer to these questions is that tipping etiquette in the fly fishing business follows the same general rules that apply to all service industry workers in a given country. In the U.S. for example, gratuities of more than 20 percent mean you were extremely happy about the experience; tipping less than 10 percent means you were dissatisfied, but communicates to the service provider that you know tipping is customary.

In all cases, if you are using a booking service or know someone who has fished the location before, ask. You'll avoid uncomfortable moments like a bartender in New Zealand refusing your $10 tip ("Why don't you just buy a round for the bar, mate?").

Is tipping discretionary? Tipping amounts — even in the U.S. and neighboring countries, where gratuities are often taken for granted — should always reflect quality of service. But not tipping in an industry where gratuities make up a considerable portion of the incomes of the lower-paid staff is almost always insulting. Discussing the source of a bad experience with a lodge manager while you are on-site, for example, is far better than leaving without tipping.

Guidelines for Tipping Independent Guides

First, let's clarify what we mean by "independent guide." Florida skiff guides and light-tackle offshore guides, New England and California striper guides, Texas bass and coastal redfish guides, and trout, salmon and steelhead guides not part of a lodge setting — whether booked by an outfitter or not — should all be considered independent guides, as far as tipping is concerned. What sets them apart is that they generally run their operations and provide service individually, absorbing the attendant overhead, and if they do accept bookings from a retail shop or outfitter, they generally have to pay a commission for that service.

As a rule, you should plan on tipping $40-50 to a bonefish guide for day of work in the Bahamas or around the Caribbean and Central and South America. In Iceland, on the other hand, you should plan to tip a salmon guide $50-100 per day.

If you are budgeting for gratuities, figure in 15 percent for an average level of service from an independent fly fishing guide, but not less than 10 percent. Guides get a large percentage of their income from tips. Some top-tier guides expect a sizeable tip, and won't find future openings in their schedule for new clients who don't tip 20 percent. And regularly tipping more than 15 percent can get you access to peak-season slots that suddenly "come open."

Of course if a guide makes an exceptional effort — fishing an extra hour or three beyond the norm or working especially hard to put you on fish — tipping well makes good sense. Being stingy after a remarkable effort punishes the guide and the anglers who follow you. Not happy and don't plan to fish with the same guide again? It's still a good idea to tip something, even if it's only 5 percent — it's not worth saving a few bucks and risking having it become known among the other guides that you don't tip.

One somewhat special case worth mentioning regards tipping independent Bahamas and other independent foreign guides. It's hard to know what to tip independent foreign guides because in many cases their rates are considerably lower than independent guides in the U.S. As a rule, you should plan on tipping $40-50 to a bonefish guide for day of work in the Bahamas or around the Caribbean and Central and South America. In Iceland, on the other hand, you should plan to tip a salmon guide $50-100 per day.

Guided Fly Fishing Trip

All that being said, keep in mind that many of the best guides in the U.S. would fish with their favorite customers even if they never tipped. When I was guiding — especially in the early years when I had little choice over my clientele — I believed that there was no amount of money that could compensate me for the pain of dealing with lousy customers. But I would have guided my best clients for free; tips from them were the icing. Here are a couple of other non-monetary suggestions for treating your guide well and letting them know you appreciate their efforts:

  • Show up 5-10 minutes early. Don't make your guide wait, especially early in the morning.
  • Be pleasant company and fish well. Can't fish well? You can try hard, and that's all a good guide expects. Don't get angry or frustrated to the point where it is interfering with the experience. Don't talk on your cell phone while tarpon are sipping crabs from the surface 20 feet in front of the boat. And don't strip all of your backing onto the floor of your guide's rig on the way to the river.
  • Don't treat taking your guide out to dinner as part of the gratuity. Most hardworking guides consider the opportunity to spend precious evening hours with their clients part of their work day, not a bonus.

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