A difference. That's what a guide makes!
I'm joking. I couldn't resist quoting the Taylor Mali TED talk video about "What a Teacher Makes" where he talks about people dumping on teacher salaries. It's a classic. You won't regret watching this: What a Teacher Makes
Hiring a guide for a day is a somewhat expensive activity if you compare it to other things you can do for a day for cheaper than four or five hundred dollars. I've hired many guides when fishing in other regions or places that I don't know. I would say that I'm a little biased in that hiring a guide is a worthwhile use of money and time, but I've also never had a bad experience with a guide. I've heard of people having experiences where guides didn't teach them very well or provide a poor lunch or showed up late and didn't even apologize! In those rare cases, I would say that the money is not worth it.
But what are you getting for your money?
You're receiving intel about an area that you're probably not familiar with. Your guide should know the ins and outs of the water that you're fishing. A guide teaches you how to cast a fly rod and fish it efficiently. A good guide will fix your bad habits or teach you the right habits if it's your first time. You're often using gear that would cost you hundreds of dollars. Heck, just renting a boat for a day can cost $300 or more. Flies may be small, but they can add up, especially if you lose multiple in one day. A "gourmet" riverside lunch is provided when you take full day trips. Lastly, at times I feel like a good guide is often used as a bit of a therapist. Many clients who come out like to talk about their lives and airing your issues out while floating down a relaxing river isn't the worst place to do it. However, I do NOT advertise myself as a therapist!
When I first hired a guide back in my early days, I thought to myself "What a sweet gig. This guy gets paid to hang out on a river and help people catch fish all day." I love this profession, but there's not a guide out there who is making corporate money. Sure, the river is a better office space than a cubicle, but you have a ceiling on how much money you make. After all, there are only so many days that you can fish each year.
In some places, there are people who guide as a full time job. In a state like Maine, you don't have many of those people because of a shorter season. Since my full time job is teaching math, let's run some numbers. A guide in Montana typically makes $500 per day. If you multiply that by 120 days, that's $60,000. That's a great number, but the problem is that they can never make more than that. Yes, they chose their profession, but we all like to make more money. A guide in Montana, however, has to pay an outfitter usually about one-fourth of what they make, so now that number is down to $45,000 before tax. Now factor in guide liability insurance ($500-$1000 for the year) and all of your gear costs and food/beverage expenses. You're now looking at less than $40k. Many guides only have so many days to make their "nut" that they often work 60-70 days straight without a day off. (I'm assuming they schedule dentist visits for the offseason). While the job has many great perks, like any other job, there are parts that flat out stink. Not having a day off for 2 ½ months has to get old at some point.
Now, if you're working in a place like Maine as a guide, you either need to have a spouse who makes great money or you need to have another job to supplement. The fishing is Maine is typically only good from the month of May through the month of October. There are 183 days from May to October, but let's assume you do work full time, which is about 100 trips on the water. I've never met a guide who does more than 120 trips a year in Maine, but if you're out there I'd love to hear your story. The going rate in Maine is around $400 for a full day, so with 100 full day trips that's $40,000 before tax. After taxes and all expenses, you're looking at around $30k per year. Yes, you could live simply, live "off the land" or have a Sugar Mama, but $30k is not much money during this day and age.
You're probably thinking that I haven't figured in the gratuity piece of guiding. Most people tip their guides 10-20%. I think this is a reasonable number if you're satisfied with your day. You should be looking at how hard your guide worked for you rather than how many fish you caught, but look at it however you want. I've had people catch only a couple of fish and tip me 30%. I've also had people catch 20+ trout on a half day trip and not tip at all. There's a great debate out there about tipping guides. My argument is that it should be a person's preference whether they thinking tipping is appropriate or not.
Your expectations from a guide should be that they are on time, respectful, knowledgeable, and safe. They should provide you with quality equipment and patient instruction. A guide should tell you everything you need for the day, as well as give you recommendations about places to stay and eat if you're visiting from away. They should teach you enough to get you hooking into fish and provide food and drinks to help you enjoy your day!
Every guide differs on there expectations for clients, but I have a few expectations that I relate to clients before they step into the boat or on the river. The first thing that I always ask for is being a great listener. The most "successful" clients are often the best listeners. At least for safety's sake, it's important to listen to your guide as they know their waters well and warn you about potential dangers. If you can, be willing to go out early in the day or late in the day as sometimes the fishing can be better in periods of low light. I've never understood the 8 am to 4 pm float trip for folks looking to catch a lot of fish. Typically, the fishing is better before and after those times, but every place is different especially in different seasons. My other expectations are that you remain patient and have a good attitude. Sometimes, the fish just aren't really biting. Trust me, your guide would throw fish onto your hook if they could. Keeping a good attitude and persevering throughout your day will help you have a more enjoyable experience!
Aaron Broaddus is a passionate fly fisherman and a Maine guide.