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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

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