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Why Do We Have to Tip Guides?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

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

Rainbow Trout

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 #1I’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 #3You 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 #4I 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 #5I 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 #6I 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?

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com. You can email your fly fishing questions to us at ask@midcurrent.com.
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  • Johne

    If I picked the guide with a $100 Extra and 20 years under his belt, I would have never met the great guides that I deal with around the country. Sometimes a younger guide wants his customer to have the best fishing experience as possible and will break their butts to do so.The tips will usually follow the performance be it a boat load of fish or a slow day.

  • para adams emerger

    I do a good job and I do not get tips. Most guides make more than I do, so I have to pay them more at the end of the day than the cost of the trip? I don’t tip my airline pilot, and he has my life in his hands; same with my doctor…the rate is the rate, nothing more. It seems guides expect a tip, regardless. And if you don’t, you’ll not get a date with them again. How did this start? Operate your business as a business. If you expect tips you will fail. And do you tip independent guides, or just shop guides? How much do those shop guides actually make on a $500 trip? Tipping overall is out of hand. If you are not making enough money without a tip get a better paying job.

    • BJMoose

      I look at this differently; If you can’t afford (or are too cheap) to tip for good service you shouldn’t use that service. Guides, for the most part, work long hours during a limited season and most endure their clients with good humor. You most likely are not God’s gift to fly fishing. Give them a good tip.

  • emil turner

    I worked for a living (still do, tho’ retired) and I can recognize the difference between someone who is working hard, and someone who is just mailing it in. I have tipped a little, and tipped nothing when I thought the guide was disengaged, or not interested in helping me catch fish. I tip a lot when the guide works hard (rarely less than $100 an outing). If I were a guide, I’d want the immediate feedback of a good tip on a job well done. I don’t have a problem with tipping.

  • zachmatthews

    I tip guides like I tip waiters; 20% based on the fee. I’ve never gotten so much as a dirty look for that practice. I’ve tipped some excellent guides (many of them abroad), and I’ve tipped some atrocious guides. My group even tipped the guide who tried to abandon us at the end of the day by dropping us off at the furthest cab stop outside New Orleans (after picking us up at the hotel that morning).

    So I tip automatically, but I also believe that there are times when a guide deserves a real thank you for what he did that day. I fished down in Mexico a couple years ago and caught my first permit. Someone else was covering both the trip and the tip, so there would have been no hard feelings if I had left the tipping to the people hosting the trip. But my guide had truly busted his ass for me over the course of five days, many of which involved filming and which forced him to “play guide” repeatedly with no chance of catching fish. When he actually managed to pull a permit out of his hat, put me in perfect position, switch me from a fly the fish refused to one it would eat, then get on the motor and run me down-flat when the reel I had been handed proved to have a tangle deep in the backing, I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I’d just left it to someone else. When we hit the beach the first thing I did was run into my room and return with a hundred bucks. He was appreciative, and the other guides all gave me the ‘you did the right thing’ nod.

  • Stflyfisher

    I generally follow the 20% rule unless the service was really bad, but when a guide goes out of their way for me, I will gladly tip a lot more. I look for a guide who not only shares local knowledge, but gives good service with a great helpful attitude. Most guides I have used work extremely hard for their money. And that effort starts way before the trip and doesn’t end until well after the trip with clean-up of gear, and prep for the next day. One guide had me out on a float of a major river well beyond the 8 hour cutoff simply because I had caught nothing. It was a very tough day – very hot and the water was warmish and the trout hunkered down. We fished well into the night and got off the river around 11 pm. I caught one really nice brown, as a result. I tipped that guide significantly as a way of thanking him for going (and rowing) the extra mile.

  • Doug Jeffries

    In my experience, guides in most geographic areas tend to migrate to the same daily fees. I might find a slight variation once in awhile but in a season or two they all charge the same. So I prefer the “tipping system” as the best mechanism to reward my guide. I think if the more experienced guides charged more, it wouldn’t be long and the others would be charging the same thing without having earned it. Additionally, this topic has been discussed at length in the past and most of the guides who participated state that they understood that a tip was an extra reward and they did not expect it. I take that information to heart and tip accordingly. I’ve not tipped guides who were late, didn’t work hard, verbally abused me or my boatmate for blowing a shot at a bonefish on a tough day, etc. At the other end of the spectrum I’ve tipped extra well for guides who went out of their way to make a trip special, guides who poled hard into the wind chasing a single tarpon because that’s all we saw, guides who sent pre-trip advice and guidance, etc. I think the tipping system works just fine as long as it doesn’t become an automatically expected part of the guide’s payment.

    • Epic James

      I share this perspective. As long as it doesn’t become an automatically expected earning, than we are good. Even still, the trend does’t seem to sway this way in the industry, especially for the green horns.

  • Dwight Galler

    Just learn to fish yourself and you won’t need a guide

    • Epic James

      Not always possible. Especially on salt water. Also, in some countries, you are required to hire a guide to fish as a tourist.

  • Icis Bokonon

    This question is backwards, The answers are polite but don’t reach far enough into the core issue, which is worth. It is true that tipping a guide has become tradition; what that also means is that the worth of the service has now become tradition as well, and that worth does not favor the guide himself. Even when the guide is self-employed, the worth in the market is established by the general trends of cost in that time and place. Since many guides are not self-employed, the tradition has reduced their fee by roughly the amount of a traditional trip, with the balance going to the outfitter whose cut is first and fixed. The tip is the market’s solution to equalize the total fee to the actual worth, and it is funneled directly to the guide. This tends to shift the cost and effort of services that should be fixed costs from the outfitter to the guide, who after all is supposed to be selling expertise.
    On the face of it that sounds like a bargain, because the tip comes informally and in cash. But what actually happens is the amount of the tip is formulated by new criteria over and above the standards for the service in the marketplace. It isn’t relevant that the tip varies by client; whatever the mean is for each individual guide is money that, in the long run, is gained by the outfitter at the guide’s expense at roughly half the ratio of the guide’s take-home against the total paid for the trip. I don’t mean immediately, of course–most guides aren’t required to kick-back half their tip to their boss. I mean through the market over time and scale.
    Restaurants where tips are substantial–usually upscale places which sell a lot of high-ticket low-overhead items like liquor–pay a salary that is merely a placeholder for withheld wages or to fulfill other bureaucratic purposes. Yet the criteria for tip quality are not within the waiter’s full control (again, over time and on average) which means that the restaurant’s income is cushioned by the fact that variability in customer’s cost is borne by the waiter (though it can work both ways when customers do not return because the service was bad.) Most guide-hiring anglers will profess that they don’t penalize the guide via tip for conditions that are outside of his/her experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that the tip is compensation for the guide that is variable when the fee is not, which benefits management.
    When I guided my fee from the outfitter plus my tip total was sufficient for me to justify my very hard work and long hours to meet my criteria for the work as a job, but I was young, loved the water, loved the work, and loved the status. This means that my willingness to work was subsidizing the income my boss made; I was satisfied with less of his money. When I became less young and more valuable in other parts of the market, I left–in other words, the system was perfect for me and I have no complaints.
    Except one. The presumption of a tip–written off to tradition, of course, which is no explanation at all–changed the dynamic of the transaction. Many of my regular clients, comfortable with the guide-angler dynamic, would ask me–what do you provide? What does the outfitter provide? How much is your fee? etc. They were probing the ratio of fixed outfitter cost to my costs, and it was thought-provoking. I shouldered several variable costs–the quality of the lunch I provided–did I carry chairs and a table, wash my hands, offer home-made food or store-bought, offer choices? And, very telling, did I actually charge my clients for lost gear as our fine print said I would, or did I waive that magnanimously on the assumption that the tip would cover it without the unpleasant nickel-and-dime totting up the losses?
    Many restaurants are now simply adding service at a flat rate, usually 18%, what studies generally identify as the average tip rate in the industry. In many houses now that money is pooled and the servers draw a more reasonable hourly wage. Though this only codifies (and records) what is still a direct transaction between server and customer, it at least eliminates the pretense that customers are somehow evaluating a server’s work and filtering out those things that he/she can’t control. Though most customers feel slighted or troubled by that practice, it is itself a kind of tip for the server who can stop attempting to identify and feed each customer’s desires and can instead focus on clean professional service, and can also comfortably join the other servers to work as a team.
    Of course the primary determiner of tip generosity in the US is whether the customer once worked in a tip-income business. I did, many times, so I always tip my guides 20% and I give it to them up front, then finish with money to cover an estimate of what I lost or used up. It may unsettle them, because they’re used to something else, but it relaxes me and I hope remedies what is at its base just another worker/management inequity.

    ice