For my 28th birthday, I decided to treat myself to a fishing trip. I’d grown up fishing, but never with a guide and I’d certainly never booked a guided trip before. But I badly wanted to catch my first tarpon and I’d seen this guy on TV make it look pretty easy, so that felt like a logical starting point.
I tracked down the website of that celebrity-ish level fishing guide who I’d seen on screen, then proceeded to book a half-day trip for $795.35. No questions asked.
I still recall standing outside the office building where I worked, eagerly calling my boyfriend to tell him about the incredible decision I’d just made. “I’m going to catch my first tarpon! This is one of the best guides around. He is on TV, after all!”
Did I research my options? No. Did I personally call for more information—or any information, for that matter? Nope. Did I read reviews or even bother to ask a couple local friends? You bet I didn’t. I pressed that “pay now” button with the confidence of a NASA engineer deploying a shuttle to save earth from a rogue meteor.
The day finally arrived and we waited patiently at the dock, our backpacks stuffed with a couple gas station sandwiches and warm beers. As our guide docked, he welcomed us aboard sleepily, “You can shove your backpacks in that front hatch. Oh, and I didn’t have time to get ice, but there’s a cooler under that seat.”
I popped the lid to see about ten ice cubes, an unopened lunchable, and a couple of yesterday’s Coronas floating in the water. Seemed like a small enough oversight.
We made our way to the fishing grounds and it wasn’t long before we came upon a sight I’d never before witnessed in my life: tarpon rolling. Lots of them. That iconic visual of a magnificent, prehistoric creature, gulping a breath of air then disappearing below the surface with an effortless flash from their silver-scaled backs.
Our guide quickly handed me a rod outfitted with a 10-inch, bubblegum pink Hogy soft plastic bait. “Whip it out there as far as you can, right in the middle of them,” he instructed. I was nerve-wracked by the anticipation of feeling a tarpon eat for the very first time, visualizing the rod being ripped from my hands from the shear force. I gripped the rod tighter.
Just as I was getting the hang of the new, aggressive casting style, another boat curiously idled toward the action. “Ugh. I hate when they get that close,” our captain grumbled, almost under his breath, “Reel in, let’s move.”
My heart sank. But… the tarpon, I thought, as I looked back over my shoulder at the unrelenting action, feeling deflated.
We migrated to a nearshore spot where we proceeded to fish for bonito, a small species of the tuna variety. The intention was to keep a few, cut them into chunks, and drift them in high-flow channels where hungry tarpon might await.
After tossing the fifth or sixth bonito into the livewell, I was over it. “Isn’t this fun?!” our guide bubbled with an obvious forced enthusiasm. I smiled politely.
An hour passed. As we pushed toward hour two, I dropped a few not-so-subtle hints about my dream of catching a tarpon. By the time we made our move to the next spot, there was hardly an hour left of the four-hour trip—made quite apparent by the frequency at which our captain checked his wristwatch.
We drifted a few baits that prompted a few sloppy bites, but none resulting in a solid hookup. With 10 minutes to go, our guide promptly announced that it was time to head back: “Lines in!”
I couldn’t mask my disappointment. More than half the trip had been virtually wasted on bait fishing. And the worst part was that I had already tipped in advance. So where was the incentive to try?
Looking back, I take full responsibility for my naiveté. The experience was a hard lesson for a young idealist with optimistic views about how the world works and how people operate.
I had failed to actively communicate my desires, leaving the success metric for the entire day open to interpretation. But, in exchange, I gained a valuable life lesson about expectations that I still apply to this day.
If you’re willing to invest the equivalent of a mortgage payment on an adventure experience, it’s critical that you do your research in order to mitigate potential risks you might experience as part of that investment. I’ll share a few tips to consider when hiring a guide for your next fishing trip.
Gather intel from trusted sources
Saltwater fishing sales manager for the adventure travel company Eleven Experience, Zeke Sieglaff, said: “First exhaust your immediate trusted friends.”
Gather intel from anglers you personally know and trust. A useful tactic is to request recommendations on social media, a place where people are happy to share their opinions and experiences.
“Then, if you exhaust that possibility, definitely reach out to a local fly shop,” Sieglaff said. Local fly, tackle, or bait shops tend to recommend reputable guides—their business relies on happy customers having exceptional experiences—and they want you to visit again someday.
Consider a booking/travel agent
There are many fishing-specific booking companies and travel agencies, such as Yellow Dog and Sweetwater Travel. The most reputable outfits go to great lengths to vet the guides and lodges they’ll work with, which means those businesses are held accountable to the booking agent for bad performance and customer service. Booking agents often have experts for a particular region or continent who can help you narrow down your decision of where to go and what to do, which can be helpful to sort through sometimes mind-boggling arrays of options. They’ll also have experience traveling to that particular place and can give you valuable advice.
Unlike a basic product or service, reviewing a fishing charter is a reflection of the guide’s effort, attitude, personality, and professionalism. Branch outside their website testimonials and peruse what people are saying on third party websites like TripAdvisor, Google, or Yelp. The most important characteristic of a guide? “Hardworking,” Sieglaff said. “But they also have to be a people person that is able to engage the client and talk to them.”
Call before booking
A phone call gives you a chance to ask pressing questions and feel out a guide’s personality before you’re shanghaied on a boat or riverbank together for several hours or days. First, be sure to read through all the information available on their website as many guides will list their rates, what to bring (or not to bring), and things like weather and cancellation policies.
Match your preferences
Are you a dry-fly-only guy? Or do you prefer live bait meat trips? Is there a unicorn species on your bucket list? Try to find a guide that specializes in the style of fishing you want to do or species you want to target. Communicate any nuances upfront and give the guide a chance to provide feedback. Some guide networks are happy to refer you within their circle if they don’t specialize in what you’re looking for.
Consider the season
Cindy Nguyen, professional angler and sponsored fishing athlete for Columbia Sportswear, has fished with guides around the world, from Vietnam to Argentina to Cabo. “The most important thing, especially around the world, is knowing when the season is on,” Nguyen said. “If you’re going to travel that far, always communicate with guides in the area. When you’re not fishing on your own turf, time is money and it’s worth every penny.”
In Costa Rica, for example, winter is when the prime billfish action turns on. “Good lodges will tell you the best dates to come for the best kind of fishing you want to do,” Nguyen said.
Once you’ve booked a guide, communicate openly with them about what you’d like to achieve during your trip. They’ll likely attempt to manage your expectations based on variables like tides, weather, and seasonal patterns—which is a great thing. They don’t want you to get your hopes too high, just as you want them to bust their asses to make it happen. A good guide will communicate with you about what to expect on the charter and throughout the day.
Cheaper isn’t usually better
Some of the best guided fishing trips are extremely pricey, but well worth it. Offshore big fish trips are always on the high end because they require a lot more time, effort, fuel, and overhead. Well-established guides with repeat clientele often have higher rates because they’ve earned an acclaimed reputation and are in high demand.
Don’t assume anything
Just as no two guides are the same, no two fishing experiences are ever the same. Even if you’ve had a poor experience in the past, don’t let it cast shadows on future trips. Take the lesson and apply it next time. But on the other side of the coin, just because your last three guides have been total pros, don’t assume the next one will be. Always do your homework.
Beware of the “guaranteed catch” guarantee
Personally, I don’t trust anyone who claims to control or predict a day on the water or in the woods. These pursuits are inherently challenging and predictably unpredictable. That’s why they’re fun. In the words of Scottish poet, Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.”
Never poach spots
Probably the worst thing you could do is book a guide with the intention of finding out their secret spots so you can fish them on your own. Spots are sacred in the game of fishing. I’ve heard guides tell tales of being “watched” by other boats, then there’s three people there the next day. They call this the “truck stop.” I know a guide who claimed to throw a client’s cell phone in the water for secretly marking locations throughout the trip. Trying to steal a guide’s spots is like walking into a football coach’s office and asking for their playbook. Just don’t do it.
As you build your fishing portfolio, you’ll find that booking the right guide is the best choice you can possibly make. Guides possess the ultimate local knowledge, acquired over years of experience and countless hours on the water. And for fair market value and a little due diligence, their effort can be translated into your reward.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.