The vast majority of fishing and hunting guides are honest, hardworking, dedicated folks who have chosen to earn their living in one of the world's toughest, most competitive and physically demanding professions. Because the only thing of true value any guide has to sell is their reputation, most will work as hard as they know how to see to it that you get the trip you want. Oddly enough though, with all of that hard working competition out there to choose from it can be difficult for a prospective client to find the right guide.
Over the course of twenty years of guiding both hunters and anglers, about equally split between full and part-time guiding, I've learned a few things about guides and clients. Additionally, having on occasion, found myself needing the services of a guide as I explored new waters or chased game over ground I didn't know I've also been in the unique situation of being a guide trying to pick a guide for myself.
Having experienced both sides of the coin I thought I'd offer the following ten tips for picking a guide. Although these tips are couched in terms of finding a fishing guide they will work just as well for picking a hunting guide or outfitter.
Experience Counts- Having a knowledgeable guide to help you find that once-in-a-lifetime fish can turn even a cold, rainy day into a memory you'll treasure. Here a group of happy anglers proudly show off a gorgeous 48-pound chinook salmon hen taken, in the wind and cold rain, on Oregon's Kilchis River.
1. Be Honest
Try to keep in mind that picking a guide is a two-way street. It's important that you provide each prospective guide with all of the necessary personal information they'll need to see to it that you get the trip you want. What kind of fishing are you looking for? Do you want to take meat home or will you be satisfied with catch and release? What's your level of experience and/or competancy? This is critical. I am constantly surprised at the number of clients who want to fly fish for salmon or steelhead, who tell me they are good fly casters and then turn out to have last held a fly rod ten or fifteen years ago. Most good, competent guides will be happy to either teach a novice or offer tips or even a quick refresher course to someone who is a little rusty on their casting, be it with a fly rod or a level wind reel or even spinning gear. But it helps to know this in advance. If for no other reason than to assure that the guide allows a little extra time at the start of the day to help you iron out those bumps in your technique. Do you have a medical condition or physical limitations the guide should know about? There are few things as frustrating to a guide as getting a client out on the water only to find out there is a limitation they weren't aware of that will likely affect the day's plan. I'll give you an example: I recently booked a trip with a father and his ten year-old son for a day of salmon and steelhead fishing from a driftboat. Because the river had been getting a lot of pressure over the preceeding several days and to assure we were in position in my favorite early morning hole I had them show up well before first light. I even went so far as to explain that while it would still be dark, we'd only be rowing a few yards from the boat ramp before setting the anchor. It wasn't until the boat was in the water that the father informed me that his son had "an active imagination" and flatly refused to ever go on the water before first light. As a result, we stood around in the dark until the young man was comfortable enough with the light level to climb in the boat. I really wish the father had explained his sons' aversion to being on the water in the dark before we got there. We could have all gotten another hours' sleep that morning.
2. Friends and Relatives
This is usually the best way to find a guide. Find someone you know who has fished or hunted the area you intend to visit and ask them for a referral. Be sure, though, that they were looking for a trip and circumstances similar to you. As an extreme example of how this simple concept can go awry, I once booked a trip for a gentleman, based on a referral from a business associate of his who had fished with me the year before, who told me only that he wanted to deep sea fish. He didn't care for what, he said, it just had to be in the ocean. Well, as it turned out we were both shocked to discover when I met him at the dock that since his last fishing trip had been for tarpon on the saltwater flats of the Florida Keys he thought that's what we'd be chasing. I explained to him that we don't have saltwater flats, let alone tarpon, on the Oregon coast. As it turned out he was completely happy to catch several open ocean salmon that day. The whole misunderstanding could have been avoided however if he had simply asked his associate what kind of fishing he'd done and if I had only asked what he was expecting to catch. We both made assumptions that could have, under other circumstances, led to a disasterous day and a very disatisfied client.
By all means ask any prospective guide for referrals. Any good, professional guide should be prepared to provide you with a list of satisfied customers. But don't stop with the list they so gladly provide. Ask for the names and phone numbers of at least a few clients they've had who didn't catch fish. It's all well and good to talk to clients who've had successful days but a more telling piece of information is talking with those that didn't. No guide catches fish absolutely every day. Although we all hope to and most will work their hearts out to see to it that the client always catches fish, there is a reason we call it fishing and not shopping. Once again, no guide catches fish every day. Talk to a few clients who happened to be there on one of those days. Would they, or have they, booked with that guide again? Would they recommend the guide to friends or family? In the long run, these folks will often give you a better idea about the guide than clients who do catch fish. Don't limit your questions of referrals to just 'did you catch fish?'. You also need to know a few other things;Was the guide courteous? Not just to the client but to other boaters, anglers and anyone else on the water that day? Was the equipment adequate for the task? Were the equipment and the boat in good repair and well maintained? Was the boat clean? Was the bait fresh?
Helping Hand- One mark of a good guide is the willingness to talk you through fighting a fish. By calmly instructing you to remember to pump and reel, telling you where to point the rod so as to control a long, hard run and reassuring you that you, not the fish, are in control a good guide helps assure that each fish hooked is landed. Here Dennis (left) coaches a client through fighting his first really big sturgeon. As it turned out, this fish was nearly eight feet long and weighed in the neighborhood of 100-pounds.
4. The Internet
The proliferation of fishing and hunting web sites on the internet is amazing. I honestly don't believe there is a type of fishing or hunting or a fishing or hunting destination that can't be located on the internet today. There are, however, a couple of pitfalls to watch for when using a search engine to help your fingers do the walking. Be sure you start your search with specifics. Either start with a particular state, province or foreign country and go from there or, better still, begin with the location and the type of experience you're looking for. You'd be surprised at the number of people who contact me asking to book a walleye or smallmouth bass trip when my website, brochures and the brief blurbs I supply each of the dozens of general fishing and hunting websites I'm listed with all clearly state that I only guide anglers for salmon, steelhead, trout and sturgeon. Bulletin boards on any of the major fishing and hunting websites provide another avenue for gathering the names of guides others have used and found acceptable. You can post a message asking for the names of reliable guides on a particlular body of water or a general geographical area. Additionally, many of the major national and regional outdoor sites, including North American Fishing Guides, Fishing Guides Home Page, ifish.net, cabelas.com and orvis.com all provide access to guides they have checked out and recommend.
5. Licenses and Insurance
Is your prospective guide properly licensed? It is truly amazing the number of purported "guides" that aren't. In every state I am aware of an integral part of the licensing procedure for guides requires proof of a minimum amount of liability insurance. While this amount varies from state to state, they all require it. As a client you have a right to expect that your guide is doing business within the laws or regulations established by the state they are working in. Part of that is providing insurance coverage. While the chances of an accident occuring while with a guide are statistically negligable, it doesn't hurt to know they are covered in the rare event something happens. Throughout much of the United States guides must be licensed by the US Coast Guard, in addition to any state requirements, if they use a motorized vessel. This requirement can vary widely and need not be consistent on every waterway in a state. For example, in Kentucky and Tennessee some lakes require a guide to be Coast Guard licensed while others do not. In Oregon, on the other hand, we're required to have a Coast Guard license if we use a motorized vessel on any bay or any navigable river. Further, due to the nature of a few of our rivers, we're required to have, in addition to a basic Coast Guard license, separate endorsements for the Snake, Columbia, Willamette and Rogue rivers if we're going to work on them. The easiest way to check this requirement is to contact the state licensing bureau. You can either ask the guide for the name and phone number of the state licensing bureau or contact the state capitol for the same information. Additionally, most natioanl parks and forests require separate licesing in addition to Coast Guard and state requirements. A word of caution; any prospective guide who hesitates or refuses to provide answers to any legitimate question you have about licensing probably has a reason they are not more forthcoming. You might want to take it as a hint and continue your search.
6. What Is Included?
Be sure you understand exactly what is included in the price you are paying. Whether it's a one week remote guided fishing trip in Alaska or a day on your local lake, be sure you and your guide both understand exactly what you are getting. On a simple one day fishing trip any good, professional experienced guide should provide all of the necessary tackle, gear and bait as a basic minimum. On the other hand that extended remote trip up the Amazon or on an Alaskan river should include more. Most local guides, regardless of the area you are fishing in, do not as a normal course of events include either lunch or fishing licenses as a part of their daily trips. However, some do. And, understandably, they charge more than another guide in the same area targeting the same species. Most Alaskan lodges, for example, include the price of transportation from a destination city in Alaska to and from their lodge. On the other hand, I know of no Oregon guide that's willing to drive to Portland to pick up clients at the airport for a single days' excursion.
7. Discounts And Package Deals
There is a world of difference between a discount and a package deal. Generally speaking a discount is offered to individuals, or more commonly to groups, willing to book more than one day with a guide. Package deals on the other hand usually have a discount already figured into them. Again, generally speaking, discounts are negotiable while package price deals are not. Many guides offer discounts ranging from as low as five percent to as high as twenty percent to either individuals or groups who are willing to book multiple consecutive days with them. This is a good deal for both parties. The client can realize a considerable savings while the guide doesn't have to worry about booking each of those days with different groups. It saves you money and the guide time and effort. If the web site or brochure you look at doesn't mention discounts it's a good idea to ask the guide directly. Like most business people guides can be reluctant to advertise any discount at all on their basic rate. On the other hand, and particularly in the case of multiple consecutive days, most guides recognize the value inherent in discounts and will negotiate with you.
8. People Skills
This may seem silly, but more than one day of good fishing has been ruined simply because a guide and client couldn't get along. A good deal of what any good guide does hasn't anything to do with fishing. It has to do with being able to read people and adjust their personality to fit the client. This is a vital but often overlooked skill. As just one example, I know a guide who is so surly, on a regular, daily basis, that he's been known to throw lures at clients and tell them to put them on their lines. I've even heard him tell clients when they can eat lunch. I'll admit that he stays busy but that's because he's an excellent angler with a well-earned reputation for finding his clients fish. On the other hand, I've never heard a client comment after a day on the water with him that they laughed so hard and had such a good time that they couldn't wait to fish with him again. While a phone conversation or two can tell both parties, the client and the guide, whether or not their personalities are likely to mesh, doing business via email doesn't. I encourage all of my new prospective clients that contact me over the internet to give me a call before we meet to go fishing. This not only helps us each determine whether we'll get along but also helps break the ice. When we first meet dockside, in the dark and cold or rain some early morning we already feel as if we know each other. This simple act, a conversation or two, can really help break the social ice and get us off to a comfortable start. I strongly encourage you to do the same thing. Call your guide, get to know a little bit about them before you first set foot in the boat. If nothing else, you will have established a personal relationship to one degree or another before ever actually meeting.
9. Business History
How long has your prospective guide been in business? Is this their first year of guiding or their twentieth? Do they, or have they, guided anywhere else - say, Alaska, for instance? How broad is their experience? Is their expertise limited to just one style or technique or are they versatile in many? While not an absolute measure of whether you'll catch fish, it is probably safe to assume that a guide with more experience is likely to produce more for you than one with less. Having said that however, don't reject a guide simply because they may lack years of experience. Many of the younger guides in my area, for example, come to the business having grown up in families who fished as much as many guides I know. They may also have relatives in the business with whom they apprenticed. Some of the younger guides I know are extremely good at what they do and shouldn't be penalized simply because their beards haven't turned the same shade of gray as mine.
10. Sex - That's Right, Sex
Please don't fail to hire a guide simply because they are female. While it's true that guiding has traditionally been a man's business that simply isn't true any more. Many of the finest, most experienced and professional fishing and hunting guides I know are women. Trust me, they can hold their own or better with any man. Guiding isn't neccessarily about strength or burly toughness. Fishing guides, in particular, are defined more by experience, awareness of ones' surroundings, being attuned to changes in the fishing environment, a willingness to change tactics as the situation requires and an ability to successfully deal with all sorts of people. Often, these are skills that women possess to at least (and many would say to a greater) degree than men.
At The End Of The Day- Before you head home at the end of your day most guides will clean your catch at no additional charge as a part of their service package. Here Dennis begins filleting a nice keeper sturgeon for a satisfied client.
11. I Am A Fisherman, Therefore I Lie
I know I said at the beginning that I was going to discuss ten guidelines to help you pick a guide. I lied. There is an eleventh item. If I had to distill all of the information you've just waded through so laboriously ( and I do thank you for your patience) into just one question I could ask a prospective guide it would be this: What do you do on your vacation? If he or she answers that they travel to Arizona to play golf every winter you might want to consider someone else. It's really very simple- If they aren't passionate enough about fishing to spend every available minute, hour and day on the water, they aren't very likely to give you their absolute best effort. And, if they aren't willing to go the extra distance for you, why should you hand them your hard-earned dollars? You know how a truly good guide tells the difference between a day of pay and a day of play? If it's a day of play they don't hand the rod off to some stranger every time they hook a fish.