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Why Do We Have to Tip Guides?

by Philip Monahan

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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

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 You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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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.

  • 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.