At some point in your outdoor endeavors, whether it be fishing or hunting, you will need a guide. For some hunts, like bighorn sheep in California, you must hire a guide. And I don’t care how good a whitetail hunter you are, if you set off in search of grizzly bears in Alaska without a guide, you are asking for trouble. Similarly, you might be the best bass fisherman in Virginia, but that won’t necessarily translate to catching trout in the High Sierra — or even bass in another state.
I’ve been working with hunting and fishing guides ever since I first stepped on a New Jersey party boat as a small boy. Hell, I’ve even worked as a deckhand more than once. Doing that, you learn real fast that a whole lot of people have no clue how to act or what to expect when you are working with a hunting or fishing guide.
Given that a great many of you out there are new to hunting and fishing, I thought I’d draw from my own experience, as well as that of a dozen or so friends of mine who are or have been guides, to help you understand what to expect and what questions to ask when you are booking a guided fishing or hunting trip, or are boarding a charter boat. (Special thanks to my friends RJ Waldron, Phillip Loughlin and Jon Harrison for their help here!)
Keep in mind that this article is not exhaustive: Guides and deckhands out there, let me know in the comments section if I’ve missed any major points and I’ll add them.
TRUST the LOCALS
Absolutely “A” number one biggest issue with a guide. Your local guide knows how to catch that particular fish in that particular body of water, or how to get close to that deer, or pig or whatever. When you are inexperienced, this is usually not a problem: New hunters and anglers — especially those coming to the pursuit as adults — are usually all eyes and ears. The problem is with experienced folks.
Case in point: I have caught striped bass in 10 states in all kinds of conditions, over a period of nearly 37 years. Suffice to say I know what the hell I am doing when it comes to this fish. But… when I am in a new place, or even in a familiar place fishing with a guide, I watch and listen before I open my mouth. Why? My guide fishes nearly every day here. I don’t. If I did, why the hell would I hire a guide?
“Don’t tell a guide how to do his job,” says Phillip Loughlin, who has guided me on several big game hunts. “Nothing will piss off a guide more than a smart-ass client second-guessing his abilities, and you probably don’t want to piss off the guy you’re depending on to make your trip a success.”
That said, if you are experienced with a certain style of fishing or hunting, it is perfectly OK if things are slow to gently let your guide know what has worked for you in the past. It’s a fine line between guiding the guide and sharing experiences and information.
IT’S NOT the BAG, it’s the EXPERIENCE
As a person who specifically hunts and fishes for food, this can be an issue for me — and for many of you who have taken to hunting and fishing for the same reason. You need to remember that hunting or fishing with a guide is going to be more expensive than buying meat or fish at a store or farmer’s market about 80 percent of the time; sometimes you get lucky.
If all you want is meat, buy it from reputable farmers and commercial fishermen. As important as sustenance is to the reasons I hunt and fish, these pursuits are far bigger than that. Your guide is a teacher showing you new skills, walking with you into nature’s special places to share with you what he or she gets to see every day. Relax and soak it all in.
This is especially true if you are taking your son or daughter out with you. Focus on introducing your children to nature’s great stage and all that it holds, rather than on how many animals you kill.
Photo by Hank Shaw
If you have a physical issue such as a bum Achilles tendon, as I did on a deer hunt I did on Catalina Island with my friend Charlie, tell your guide. This is vital on long hunting trips, which are usually demanding physically. If you can’t walk up mountains or long distances, get altitude sickness or whatever, let your guide know this before you arrive.
“Tell the guide exactly what kind of experience you’re looking for,” Loughlin said. “Don’t be bashful. If you want a leisurely stroll through the elk woods with the off-chance of killing a bull, then say so. Or don’t be surprised when you find yourself humping a week’s worth of gear through rugged mountain passes. If you just want a ‘meat hunt,’ or if you’re just fishing to fill the freezer, tell the guide so he doesn’t spend your entire trip trying to put you on the local legend.”
If you go to sea, assume you will get seasick. If I had a dollar for every puddle of puke I’ve have to hose off the deck, I could eat dinner at the French Laundry. Almost everyone who reads this lives 99 percent of your life on land. Seas of even 6 to 8 feet will rock your world. Take precautions. Dramamine, ginger, copper bracelets, whatever it takes.
Also be honest about your skills. Can’t cast? Uh, your guide should know that before you book that big fly fishing trip. Only shot your rifle once? Actually, if that’s true you should not be in the field. But if you are an inexperienced shot, let the guide know. I have no problem with a 250- to 300-yard shot with my Remington 700, provided I can get a decent rest. But that’s a quite the poke for some people, a chip shot for others.
Bring the proper equipment. As my mum has been telling me forever, “There is no such thing as bad weather. Only improper clothing.” Mum’s right. Hunting blacktail in Oregon? Bring rain gear, dumbass! Fishing for redfish in the Louisiana Bayou in August? Bring loose clothes and sunscreen. Ask your guide what to bring and you should be fine.
A word to women (who tend to get colder more easily than men, for whatever reason…) and anyone who spends most of your life indoors: Bring a little more warm clothing that your guide tells you. Many guides underestimate how cold it can get out there — they are in this weather every day, after all. This is especially true if you are hunting in a blind or stand, or on the North Pacific.
For bird hunts, be very careful about bringing your own dog. In many cases the guide’s dogs are a) fitter than yours, b) far better suited to the local conditions, and c) just better trained. Even if all of these things are not true, it’s just better to carefully talk this through with your guide before you leave your house.
As a follow-up to the last section on shooting, prepare for the trip by spending time at the range. Why botch a $3000 hunt by refusing to spend $50 on shells practicing? Crazy.
One last thing: On multi-day camping trips. Bring toilet paper. Ya never know…
Your guide is not your servant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on a hunt where my hunting partner was some rich asshole popping off all about how much money he makes (these types are always men), what he drives, where he lives, how much his fancy shotgun costs, etc, etc. I used to clean carpets for this sort of nouveau riche douche bag back in high school in Jersey: The kind of guy who wouldn’t even offer you water or coffee and then tip you a dollar (more on tipping later).
This sort of person can easily afford some of these high dollar hunts, and can develop some serious attitude. I was on a pig hunt years ago with some rich Hollywood type as well as a janitor from Fresno. You can guess who was more fun to be around. Well, this jackleg not only bossed the poor guide six ways to Sunday, he started bossing us around, too. We were hot. But the guide, who was a saint, split us up and sent us over one hill while he took Mr. Big Shot to another hill. He knew what he was doing. We heard a shot very quickly thereafter, and Mr. Big Shot had his hog: A gigantic, reeking boar good for nothing but what this guy wanted: A mount. Our guide radioed for an assistant to come to the hill where Mr. Big Shot and his pig were, and left him. “Glad that’s over,” he said. “Now, let’s go hunting.”
If your guide doesn’t curse, do your best not to curse around him. If your guide doesn’t drink — and even if he does — don’t get plastered at night and have to be peeled out of your bed every morning. This is especially the case if you are at sea. Nothing worse than a hangover in 10-foot waves with the smell of diesel fumes in the air. Barf city.
On religion and politics. ALWAYS touchy subjects. Broach them lightly, if at all. Nothing worse than long, awkward silences on boats or in a pit blind. People of wildly different religions, creeds and politics can still have great fun in the outdoors together if you stick to the task at hand. If, say, you are a Democrat and the guide starts rambling on and on about how evil President Obama is, don’t engage. Just don’t book another trip with him.
On a lesser level, do your best to refrain from telling your guide every hunting or fishing story you have, and about how many fish or ducks you kill. First off, your guide will always have better stories than you, and second, he’s heard a variation of your stories every day for this season and dozens before it.
Finally, as my friend Charlie says: “A weekend away from the ‘ball & chain’ does not mean you can break the laws of the state, nation, or nature.” ‘Nuff said.
Tip well. Believe me, I know how much working with a guide can cost. I don’t make much money, but I still always factor a tip into the mental cost of any trip. It’s only right. How much to factor in? Tricky one. Some examples:
- A party boat, where you may pay something like $75 for the trip. I never tip less than $10 unless the mates have been actively hostile, and usually $20. Remember, I do all my own fish cleaning, so you’ll want to tip the mates extra if they clean your fish for you.
- A private fishing guide or bird hunting guide, where you might pay $150 to $300 a day. Never less than $20, and usually more like $50. Even $100 is not crazy if you’ve caught lots of fish and had the time of your life.
- Offshore tuna trip or big game hunt? At least $50 for lower level trips that cost you from $300 to $600. A good starting point on this sort of trip is 10 to 20 percent until you get to really expensive trips — like those costing $3000 on up. Then you want to get as close to 10 percent as you can afford.
The key point: Tipping with hunting and fishing is always based on service, not the bag. And not just the service you got that day. Guides spent tons of time and money scouting, setting up tree stands, clearing shooting lanes, etc. Your tip should reflect the fact that hiring a guide means he did the prepwork you could not.
And if you think your guide doesn’t want you to come home with lots of fish or a nice deer or pig, you are either insane or the guide is. Most guides chew themselves up over putting their clients on the fish or game, and will work extra hard if the weather sucks or the fish just aren’t biting. Hunting and fishing are forays into the wild: There are no guarantees.
A caveat: Once in a while, you will have a horrific guide. It’s happened to me. Several times. Worst case? Many years ago, I hired a fishing guide on Montauk to catch stripers and false albacore. We had discussed beforehand that I wanted to take fish home. I got on the water and we were steaming out to the fishing grounds when I noticed he did not have a cooler or a live well on board. I asked him what was up and he said he never allowed his anglers to keep fish. I was livid. So livid we almost threw hands right there. We ended up with him turning around driving me back to the dock. He wanted money for the gas he’d used. I told him to pound sand and walked away.
Well, that should get you started. Guides our there, any more tips? Hunters and anglers? Any questions you wish you had the answers to? Fire away.