Should you hire a fishing guide?

To book a guide, or not to book a guide — that is the question.
monte becker fishing guide
One of the best guides to ever work in the business, the late Monte Becker, from the River of Dreams basecamp (photo: Earl Harper).

As we were finishing up our annual School of Trout class in Idaho last fall, a student brought up the subject of fly fishing guides. He wanted to book a guide for a couple of days on the Henry’s Fork before he headed home, and he decided to ask for my opinion. It’s been quite a while since I wrote about fly fishing guides, so it’s probably not surprising that our conversation nudged me to type up this particular piece.

There are any number of different ways to think about guides. Some folks are convinced that a talented guide is a prerequisite for an enjoyable day on the water. Others are equally comfortable straddling the line between using a guide and going without. (They’re perfectly happy with either choice.) Still others see very little difference between guides and prostitutes, and have absolutely no desire to spend money on either one.

As a former fly fishing guide, I can see the pros and cons to all those viewpoints — and I’ll share an epicurean analogy that might help you refine your own particular views.

Let’s say that you love food. You enjoy eating out, you treasure great cuisine, and you’re far more focused on happy taste buds and a full stomach than on who prepares your meals.

If you have the financial ability, you should really consider hiring a guide.

Or let’s say that you cherish good food, but you’d much rather cook your favorite meals in your own kitchen, controlling every aspect of the process, seasoning your dishes perfectly and then enjoying your feast in the peace and quiet of your own home.

My advice is to skip the guide. As the old saying goes, too many cooks can spoil the broth.

Or perhaps you enjoy every aspect of fine dining — staying home, eating out, cooking for yourself, sitting down at someone else’s table, visiting restaurants — and you’re equally happy preparing your own meals or enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor.

Hire a guide, or not, depending on how you feel at the moment, the current state of your bank account, and whether or not the spirit moves you. You’ll likely be fine either way.

The key, in case it still isn’t clear, is that you should focus on making yourself happy. Some of us like to handle everything ourselves, from tying our own flies to building our own leaders to reading the water. Others like to delegate some, or all, of those individual tasks to another person … and who better for those delegated chores than a fly fishing guide?

If you don’t see any reason to hire a guide, then you’ve gone as far as you need to with this piece. There’s no point worrying about someone you’re never going to employ. But if you’re enthusiastic about the idea of hiring a guide, or if you’re simply ‘guide-curious,’ then there’s one more point I should probably mention.

Guides can’t read your mind. Please don’t treat them like they can.

What do I mean? Well, let’s be blunt. Far too many guides believe that they already know what their clients want from a day on the water. In other words, most guides assume that their clients want to catch as many large fish as possible. While that assumption will prove accurate with many anglers, it certainly doesn’t hold true with everyone. Consequently, the best guides invariably start out their day with a variation of one simple question:

“What’s going to make you happy today?”

Guides and outfitters work in the service industry. The better ones already know this and they’ve long since realized that while some clients fall into the “as many big fish as possible” camp, others don’t. The only way they’re ever going to know for sure, and the only way a guide will make all his or her clients as happy as possible, is to ask.

It’s not rocket science. If I ever decide to start guiding again, the very first question I would ask each and every client is what they want from their time on the water.

Some folks would indeed tell me that they want to catch as many fish as possible, or as many big fish as possible, or as many big fish on dry flies as possible. That’s a given. And yet some won’t. Some will want to explore a spot they’ve never fished before. Others will choose solitude or incredible natural beauty. Still others will want to learn a new angling technique, or improve their casting, or perfect their existing skills.

Back in the day, I had clients who defined their success by getting completely off the beaten path, or seeing a moose or a bear, or fishing next to a herd of bison in Yellowstone National Park. We all view our angling through our own unique lens and that means that there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ goal when we decide to spend a day with a guide. It’s simply a matter of doing whatever is likely to bring us the most happiness.

It’s your responsibility as the client to be really clear about what you want from your guide. He or she can’t read your mind, so you have to take control. When you hire a new guide — or when you spend a day with a guide you’ve fished with in the past — take a few minutes to think about what’s going to make for a truly memorable outing, then share that information as clearly and concisely as possible.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that even the best fly fishing guide will be able to make all your angling desires come true. Still, your odds for success will go way, way up if your guide knows what you really want from your time on the water.


Fish habitat that fish actually prefer.

Insightful comments. I would add if want to learn how to fly fish, hire a guide. I spent a few frustrating years of failing to catch a single trout on a fly rod. Of course, I would quickly give up and go back to my spinning rod. But one guided trip on Utah's Green River taught me a ton and gave me the confidence to try fly fishing again. The next Saturday, I headed out with new knowledge and renewed determination and had no difficulty catching trout on my own. Lesson learned? Indeed.

Guides are not mind readers or the kind of service people who typically ask what your expectations are. They push off from the shore and row where they know the fish to be. If you ask for nothing that’s exactly what you may get.
Let the guide know your level of experience and what you hope to have by the end of the day. Every guide I’ve ever hired had a genuine desire to help the customer have a good day. TELL HIM/HER what you need.

As a wise old outfitter/guide once told me, “ everyone will have a great day as long as expectations do not exceed skill levels “ so being crystal clear and truthful with the guide is of the utmost importance.