The Care and Feeding of Your Fishing Guide

At my age there are really only three reasons to get up at 3:00 A.M., and two of them are not voluntary:  to go to the bathroom, to check out the noises in the basement, and to go fishing.When I drag my butt out of bed at that hour of the morning, I have high expectations.  I expect that my aim will be true (so does my wife).  I expect that the noises in the basement are coming from the furnace. And I expect that I’m going to catch a lot of fish.  The first two outcomes are always in doubt, but because I have carefully vetted the guides with whom I fish, I’m fairly certain it’ll be a good day fishing.

Likewise, I’m sure the guide has expectations as well.  He expects I’ll show up on time.  He expects I won’t be a pain in his butt.  And he expects he’ll be fairly compensated.  Just as there are good guides and bad guides, there are good clients and bad clients.  Which are you?  If you’re not sure, come fishing with me sometime and I’ll be happy to provide some feedback.

The quality of the guide can make or break a fishing trip.  The quality of the clients can do the same.  Just as there are certain things expected of a fishing guide to help assure a good fishing experience, there are certain things expected of clients so the fishing experience isn’t ruined for everyone.  I sometimes book a trip at the last minute and end up fishing with people I don’t know.  It’s times like that when I’m at my best behavior so I’m not the one people are grumbling about when we get off the boat. Deshka_King_2.jpg

Here are five random thoughts about things you can do as a client to keep your favorite fishing guide happy and healthy.

1.  Arrive on time.  No one likes to be kept waiting.  Just ask any of the folks sitting in your doctor’s waiting room.  Of course, you expect to wait when you go to the doctor’s office.  After all, it’s called a “waiting room.”  But I’ve never heard of a “waiting dock” or a “waiting landing.””  There are times when a pronouncement of “I’m late!” is just bad news…from a job applicant, from the governor’s office, or from your girlfriend, just to name a few.  Your guide doesn’t want to hear that, either.

Unless you’re one of the anointed few whoget live in Cooper Landing or Willow, chances are it’s going to take a little bit of time…maybe a lot of time…to get wherever it is you’re meeting your guide.  I live in Anchorage and it’s two hours to either place.  If you factor in stops at the convenience store, road construction, and moose collisions it can takemuch longer.  I’m fairly OCD when it comes to meeting the guide on time, so I plan accordingly.  I’ve been known to use my OCD behavior as a means of justifying an overnight stay in a lodgea short distance from the landing if I think getting there on time will be a problem.

If something happens and you know you’re not going to make it by the appointed time, have your guide’s cell phone number handy and call him ASAP!

2.  Be helpful, but not too helpful.There are times when your assistance will be appreciated, others when you’re likely to get yelled at.  Blessed is the client who can recognize the difference.  For instance, I don’t know anything about launching a boat.  I tried to launch a boat one time, but the engine in my pickup stalled out before I drove far enough into the water to get the boat off the trailer.  So I just stand back and watch and leave it to the professionals. 

Actually, I stand back and watch other people launch their boats because they’re much more entertaining, such as the time at Ninilchik when my buddies and I watched a boat get swamped by the rough seas and sink.  It was a warning of bad things to come because the seas were too rough, no one caught any fish, and I spent the entire trip leaning over the side of the boat.

And then there was the father/son team launching their new pontoon raft on the Kenai River.  It was a brand new raft, a big one, and they were having some difficulty getting it off the trailer.  The son, who looked to be about 14 years old, was working the raft back and forth trying to slide it off the trailer and into the river while Dad was backing the trailer into the water.  Just before the raft worked itself loose from the trailer and got caught in the current, I noticed no one was holding onto the bow line.  I yelled very loudly, “STOP!!!”  Dad slammed on the brakes andI quickly grabbed the rope as the current was about to grab the raft and take it downstream, then handed the rope to the son and said, “Here…your dad will want you to hold onto this.”

If you’ve brought along an extra rod and tackle, a cooler, or a recliner (my personal favorite!), then be a sport and pack your stuff to the boat and hand it up to the guide.  If I’m fishing with folks I don’t know, then I’ll give them a hand with their stuff so they’ll feel obligated to give me a hand with the recliner.  Then, when we get out on the water, I kick back, light up a Montecristo #2, put a fresh celery stalk in my Bloody Mary, and enjoy the day!

There have been times when helping out was necessary, if for no other reason than to assure my fellow fishermen were having a good time, and to keep them from wringing the neck of an inexperienced guide.  I tend to not interfere with a guide and let him do what he does best, but when it’s obvious the guide’s best is not good enough, that’s when I’m more than happy to lend a hand…whether the guide wants it or not.

For example, one day last August it promised to be a good day on the Deshka River.  The silvers finally showed up and they were everywhere!  When you’re floating eggs through a mess of silvers, it’s difficult to NOT catch fish, even for me.  Our fishing party that day included one fisherman with lots of experience, but no skill…that would be me…and three relatively inexperienced fishermen, and a young guide who was far more interested in fiddling with the boat motor than helping his clients catch fish.  After a while he wasn’t even baiting anyone’s hooks.  I was.  In his mind he was probably doing what he thought he was being paid to do, take us fishing.  In my mind he was being inattentive and reducing the amount of his gratuity by the minute.

One of my fellow fishermen just couldn’t buy a bite.  It was his first time fishing in Alaska and his first time fishing for salmon.  In the fishing vernacular, we were all rooting for him to lose his salmon egg. His drift was going far left of where the fish were rolling and missing them completely.  I waited patiently for the guide to help out, but he was busy fiddling with and cursing at the boat motor again, so I put my pole down and gave my fishing partner a hand.

I pointed downstream to where the fish were rolling and said, “You know where the fish are…they’re right over there giving you the fin and saying bad things about your mother, but your bait is way over here.  They’re either not noticing your bait or they’re too lazy to go get it, so you need to float it right through the middle of them.”

I gave him some pointers on what to do with his reel when he got a bite, then instructed him to cast straight out from the boat a good distance so that the bait would drift right into the school of rolling fish.  He did so, and as the bobber approached the school I chanted, “Wait for it…wait for it,” and when the bobber went down I yelled, “Reel!  Now pull!”  He gave two or three quickturns on the reel to close the bail and take up slack, then pulled up and reeled in.  My advice resulted in a nice 12 lb. silver in the net!  Maybe I’m not so hopeless after all.

3.  Don’t break his gear.  This is almost embarrassing to admit, but I’ve actually done that.  The guide wasn’t pleased, but he was reasonably good-natured about it, as I’m sure it happens more often than he would like to admit.  I apologized all over myself and gave him $20 to repair the broken tip.  I have no idea if that was enough, but he seemed happy to take it.  Maybe too happy.  Can anyone tell me how much it costs to repair a broken rod tip?

Some guides I’ve fished with have old gear that’s falling apart, sometimes literally, and I get the sense that they don’t care what happens to it.  But most guides, like the one I fish with on the Kenai, doesn’t skimp on the quality of his gear so he isn’t constantly replacing it.  I bought a new fly rod last summer…got a smokin’ deal on it at a going-out-of-business sale.  I asked my guide if I could bring it along and if he would help me get it rigged up properly, and he said, “Sure!  If you’re using your gear than you’re not wearing out mine.”  If it’s apparent your guide has made a serious investment in his gear, be conscientious and don’t break the stuff because it’s not cheap to replace.

As aggravating as it is to have their gear broken, I think what guides dislike most is having clients trash their boat.  After a long day of zipping up and down the river with the wind and rain in his face, listening to taller and taller fish tales, rigging poles, untangling lines, replacing tackle, baiting hooks, taking pictures, and filleting the catch, probably the last thing the guide wants to do is spend two hours cleaning his boat when he gets home.  If you’re baiting your own hooks, try not to drip egg cure in the boat.  Put your beer and pop cans in a trash bag, and collect your trash and take it with you at the end of the trip.  It’s little stuff, but it’ll help make your guide’s work at the end of his day go faster and he will like you for it.

4.  Bring food and drink. Please pardon me if there’s a slight quiver in my lower lip because I tend to get emotional when talking about fishing, food, and drink, especially in conjunction with one another.  Fishing trips for me aren’t just fishing trips anymore, especially the full-day trips.  They’ve evolved into events.  Sometimes there’s the pre-fishing trip dinner at a fine restaurant the evening before with all the participants.  The guide is always invited and he never pays.  If there’s no pre-fishing trip dinner, then there’s usually a post-fishing trip dinner.  Again, the guide is invited at no cost to him.

I love floating the Kenai River.  When I do it’s an all-day affair and I do what I can to make it an event.  After all, a river as grand as the Kenai deserves some pomp and circumstance! Something that has become a tradition with my full-day float trips on the Kenai is the shore lunch.

My first experience with the shore lunch was with my good friends Dennis and Steven while fishing the Deschutes River in Oregon.  With fare such as Clam ‘n’ Salmon Chowder and Antelope Sliders, washed down with red wine and champagne…well, the shore lunch almost eclipses the fishing trip as the reason to be on the river.

On a trip down the Situk River in May, 2011, Dennis and his good friend Gary brought the makings for “Lambsicles,” their version of rack of lamb, with wild mushroom cream soup, accompanied by a few bottles of fine red wine.  They’d been making the trip to Yakutat for 18 years and their shore lunches were legendary among the fishing guides, who argued over who was going to take us fishing that day.

My first attempt at a shore lunch was a full-day float trip on the Kenai a few years ago.  I prepared beef, chicken, and shrimp kabobs with tomato basil soup and chocolate chip cookies (courtesy of my wife) for dessert.  It was a big hit!  Encouraged by my success, my second attempt a few weeks later was Alaska Halibut Etouffee, shrimp bisque, and bread pudding for dessert.  That was well-received, too, but I felt that I didn’t get the roux exactly right.

My most recent attempt at a shore lunch was pulled barbecue pork sandwiches with coleslaw and banana pudding for dessert.  That was a collaborative effort with my good friend, Bob, who performs miracles with his backyard smokers and provided the pulled pork.

5.  Tip generously.  After reading my blog post “How to Find a Fishing Guide,” a friend of mine commented that the information on what to expect to pay a guide was helpful, but what he really wanted to know was how much to tip.  He’d been asking around and no one really had a good handle on it.  I told him he would need to keep an eye out for this posting where I would discuss gratuities at great length.  Besides, if I answered all his questions in one post, there would be no reason for him to read the next one.  Unless, of course, he just finds my columns to be interesting, entertaining, and engaging.

My thought is that tipping your fishing guide is the same as tipping your barber.  Your tip should reflect the level of your satisfaction with the service provided…and it also ensures he won’t scalp you the next time you come in.  You want the tip to be sufficient so as to reward excellent service and assure you’ll continue to receive excellent service in the future.

Clearly, the fastest way to tick off your guide and guarantee you won’t get any good fishing dates in the future, or maybe none at all, is to stiff him on the tip.  I’ve fished with folks who refused to tip the guide simply because they didn’t catch any fish.  In my mind, that’s the equivalent of stiffing the waiter when it was the kitchen that screwed up your order.  A guide has to be really bad to lose out on a tip from me, and so far it hasn’t happened…but I’ve been tempted.  Catching fish is never guaranteed, even in Alaska, and just because the fish weren’t cooperating, in spite of everything the guide was throwing at them, that’s not a reason to not reward your guide for a great experience and some hard work.

For example, one day-long float trip on Little Willow Creek in the middle of the 2008 king season netted just two modest-sized rainbows for four people.  Measured against the number of fish in the boat, that was probably not a successful trip, but ADF&G had just closed the Deshka to king fishing and there was a lot of pressure on the road system streams.  The guides (there were two of them that day) did everything they could, but the kings just weren’t there.  Regardless, we had a great time!  Being on the water and rafting down a creek that was new to me made for a great experience and I made sure the guides knew how much I appreciated their efforts.

On the other hand, a half-day on the Deshka River with a guide who was lazy and just not that into us resulted in no fish and a meager tip.  The fishing for kings was a little tough that day.  There were fish being caught, just not at Volkswagen rock, but that’s where our guide decided to spend the entire morning. A guide who was a little more customer-oriented would have paid attention to the fact that no one was catching fish and moved us to another spot.  What we got was essentially a drop-off with someone sticking around to bait our hooks.

I don’t usually go fishing with folks I don’t know, so when I’m with a group of friends I let them know what my intent is regarding the gratuity.  I always anticipate a great trip and bring enough cash for at least a 20% tip per rod.  My thought is that I want to see the guide with an extra $120 in his pocket for a half-day trip, $200 for a full day, especially if he doesn’t own the boat.  If I’m fishing with folks I don’t know, I’ll bring a little extra so I know the guide is adequately compensated for the day.  And I almost always pay the tip in cash.  Only once have I put a tip on a credit card.

So…are you a good client or a bad client?  Does your guide think of you as someone with whom he enjoys spending a day on the river, or does he hope someone drops a house on you?  I may not win any “Client of the Year” awards, but I can honestly say I’ve never had a guide decline a trip because he had to stay home and sort his socks.

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Chuck Brady is a self-described "lazy fisherman" devoted to getting the maximum adventure with a minimum of effort.  You won’t find him on the saltwater because he hates throwing up, but you will find him, beverage in hand, kicking back in a guided jet boat on the Deshka River fishing for kings and silvers, or relaxing on a drift boat (with someone else doing the rowing) on the Kenai, bouncing beads for rainbows and Dollies.  You can e-mail Chuck at cbrady@chuckbrady.com.