How to Tip Fishing Guides
by Marshall Cutchin
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.
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.
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.
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.