Avail 1

Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, MT

Avail 1Angling, especially fly fishing, is a sport that fosters all sorts of expectations on the part of the angler. Dreams of big fish, subtle rises to tiny flies, exotic locations, new species caught on the fly and strange but inviting waters.
I don’t know about you, but anytime I am driving or flying somewhere and look down at rivers and lakes, my thoughts go to the fish: what’s there, how’s the fishing and I wonder whether it would be a good place to wet a fly. Occasionally, new angling opportunities do present themselves. The quick business trip to an unfamiliar town, the vacation to a location where you know there’s good fishing and of course those obligatory trips for family reunions, weddings, birthdays and funerals. When you go, you’d like to take along the fly rod, gear and get in a bit of fishing, but you don’t know anything about the River X in Zeesville, USA. What to do?

Whenever there’s electrical, plumbing or automotive problems in our lives, most of us rely on experts to deliver a solution. We engage the experts, are willing to pay them and most importantly have a sincere expectation that they will solve the problem. Sometimes we watch the experts, learn from them and are able to do similar tasks another time without them. At other times, it’s only the experts that have the tools and knowledge to get things done. New fly fishing opportunities should be no different. Despite the fact that there’s an almost infinite amount of information about fish, rivers, lakes, regulations, access and such on the internet, engaging an expert will pay off when confronted with new fly fishing opportunities. In the angling world, we call the experts outfitters and fishing guides.

A guided fishing trip might seem like an extravagance but in my mind it is much better evaluated from an ‘expectations and return on investments’ perspective. If you can’t afford to pay the plumber to fix a broken pipe or the mechanic to change your oil, you probably can’t afford a guided fishing trip. However, if you don’t fix the broken pipe you’ll be paying for exorbitant water bills and possibly water damage, so the investment in fixing the problem is almost certainly worth the cost.

A similar argument can be made for investing in a guided fishing trip. The typical scenario goes something like this. You are going somewhere you’ve never been before or are essentially unfamiliar with. You’d like to fish but know little about the local waters, fishing, access, regulations, gear requirements, etc. You’ve read about River X in Zeesville, USA and understand they have some pretty good bonanza trout fishing. You’ve seen the pictures. You are going to have a whole day to fish River X. Your expectations are high and you don’t want to waste the day. What to do?

Avail yourself with an expert. Book a guided fishing trip on River X if it is available. If the fishing is as good as the internet says it is, outfitters and guides are most likely available. A guided fishing trip is not much different than hiring a plumber to fix a broken pipe. You do your research, select an outfitter, book the trip and above all, set for yourself an appropriate set of expectations. Those expectations in part are borne out of the reason to take the trip in the first place. For most guided trips, those reasons fall into three categories (or combinations of):

  • Unknown waters: You’ve never fished River X before; you need a guide to show you the ropes.
  • Impossible gear requirements: I just don’t have the gear—boat, rods, flies, etc. to fish the River X when I am in Zeesville, but the guide does.
  • Pure laziness: I don’t have the time to mess with anything, so I’ll just let the guide handle everything.

Although there are lots of outfitters that provide extensive full package multiple day fishing at lodges and such, what I am talking about here is the one day (or half day) trip you can take whenever you have an opportunity to do so. Typical day trips are of three sorts—walk/wade trip on rivers, float trips on rivers and boat trips on lakes, bays, flats or offshore. Regardless of destination or type of trip you might be interested in, the first step is finding a guide or outfitter. Sometimes there are few, at other times there are many.

Of course outfitter, fly shop and outdoor tourism websites are logical starting point. But another source of invaluable information is the many internet forums related to fly fishing, the larger the community better. One merely posts the question. “I am taking a trip to Zeesville and want to fly fish River X. Does anyone have any recommendations for outfitters, guides or fly shops that might help me out?”  If River X is any kind of a place, advice will flood in. As you search the web and internet forums, beware of the hype that is inevitable from outfitters, guides and fly shops. They wouldn’t stay in business if they didn’t satisfy clients but not all they promise on their website will come true.

As you do your research, you will eventually learn what it’s going to cost which will vary widely based on location, popularity, complexity and demand. From my experience, although price shopping isn’t a bad idea, it’s a very competitive business and for the most part, prices don’t vary much between outfitters and guides for any given type of trip at any given location. The best outfitters and guides compete on service and reputation, not price. Once you’ve narrowed your choice (if you have any), the next step is inquiring for availability. Most outfitters and guides book trips well in advance. If you have just one day, you’ve got to find a guide who’s available on that day.

Whenever I contemplate a trip somewhere new, I email the outfitters well in advance and inquire about specific dates. There are three possible outcomes to such an inquiry—they aren’t available, they are available, or they don’t answer the email. I always avoid those that don’t answer the mail. If you find a guide that is available, make sure you understand the services they offer and they understand what you would like to do. Once you are confident that the outfitter or guide can deliver what you’d like to do, commit to a firm date with a deposit if required. Although in very popular locations, such as southwest Montana, you can sometimes walk-in to a fly shop and book a trip for the next day but that can be a risky tactic if you really want to be sure and have an available guide.

I mentioned above that the decision to take a guided fishing trip was less about extravagance and more about expectations and return on investment. One such trip I took back in 2003 or so is a good example. My wife’s niece had moved to Apollo Beach, Florida on Tampa Bay with her husband who was in the Air Force at MacDill AFB. We were still living in Alabama. As with all close-by relatives we’d be visiting the Central Gulf Coast two or three times a year as long as the niece was living in Apollo Beach.

Flats fishing in the Tampa/Sarasota region was pretty popular but I’d never really done it before, let alone know where to go on Tampa Bay for a successful trip. Although it was an easy drive hauling my bass boat down to Florida, it was useless if I didn’t know what I was doing on the flats. So for the very first day I knew I would be free, I booked a full day trip with a flats guide. I remember the guide and trip well. Captain Byron of Barbed Steel Charters showed my cousin Matt and I the ropes.

From a very foggy dawn throughout the heat of day, Captain Byron hooked us up with Snook, Redfish, Ladyfish and Speckled Trout. I learned more in one day about not only how to catch these fish, but where to find them and how to navigate the changing tides, inlets, flats and islands on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay. It was an 8 hour trip but we probably spent a total of 10 hours from start to finish. As I recall, it cost $525 plus tip, so I suspect I laid out $600 for the day–$60 an hour—much cheaper than a plumber or electrician.

Captain Byron had all the right, high-end spinning and fly gear, the right flies, lures and knowledge, which he shared generously during the full day of fishing. It was the only guided trip I ever took on Tampa Bay, yet for the next five years, multiple annual trips to Tampa and Sarasota with the bass boat or kayaks were successful because I’d made the investment in that one guided trip. But to get the most out of your investment you need to be prepared and your expectations in line with that preparation. More on preparation and expectations in part II.


  1. You mentioned “Tipping”. The last trip I booked was with a guy that owned the boat. I arrived 30 minutes early, he was 5 minutes late. He wanted to refuel his boat (on what I felt was my time) before we went out. He spent most of the day sitting on my gear bag. After about 5 hours, I had C&R 6 or 7 undersized fish. All the way back to the dock, he talked about how nice it would be for me to take he to lunch.

    A week later, I rent a boat from the same marina. I hit every spot we hit the week before. I catch 6 very nice strippers that were released.

    Long story short, I paid a guide to show me the place, but I still don’t feel guilt about not tipping or taking him to lunch…

    1. I am a firm believer in the idea that gratuities must be earned. The guy you described probably wouldn’t have gotten anything from me either.

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