Top 10 Things to Look for When Hiring a Hunting or Fishing Guide or Outfitter
Hiring an guide or outfitter on a hunting, fishing, bowfishing or other adventure is often a way to learn more about a sporting pursuit if you are new to it or just looking to brush up your skills for a future self-guided adventure. Many folks prefer to only go on outdoor adventures with a guide. That is fine as well. There are many things to consider about the guide or outfitter you hire. We have all heard horror stories about bad experiences with outdoor professionals. Here is a list of questions and considerations I recommend when booking your next outdoor adventure.
1. Is this guide or outfitter a true expert and what they do?
I know many guide and outfitters who have decades of experience. In my humble opinion, these are the ones that deserve the most trust and consideration, even if the cost to book with them is higher than a new guy or gal just starting out on their own. Go for tried and true longevity. This is especially true if you know little to nothing about them or how they conduct business. It is fairly easy to start an outdoor industry business. Print some business cards and brochures or just put up a website and you are in the action. What you are really looking for is a solid track record. Ask to see testimonials or references from past clients. There are bad business people in just about every industry but fleshing out a good business is usually not that hard to do. The nice thing about this industry is that bad businesses usually do not last long as the market quickly weeds them out. See any warning signs? Move on to the next one. There are usually plenty of fish in the sea so to speak.
2. Is the guide or outfitter understanding of my needs and desires?
The outdoor business you book with must be relatable to you, your past experience, and your needs and desires in regards to what you want to accomplish with them. While I am certainly not saying you need to be a Prima Donna with a list of demands, (and trust me, there are many clients a guide business encounters like this) a guide needs to be able to cater to you in regards to your experience level and your future plans with them.
Marty McIntyre, a local bowfishing guide I work for in Texas, does an incredible job catering to his clients’ needs on a case by case basis. From beginners to experts on his boat, he gears his coaching, advice, and direction of the trip to each group that steps onto his boat. If the group is after trophy fish and “all business” in their pursuit, he discusses what to look for and how to find, shoot, and fight big fish. If the group is just out for a good time, he caters the trip to a more casual fun and laid back experience. If you are not able to relate your guide or he or she is not able to relate to you, they might not be the best fit for you to have an overall good experience. You can usually feel out an outdoor business by asking lots of questions and talking about your goals while engaged with them. Get a bad feeling? Move on.
3. Does the guide or outfitter have the heart of a teacher or a salesman?
Many guides I have met through the years are good hearted folks. They love the outdoors and seek to provide their clients with the best experience possible. There are bad apples in every bunch, however, and outdoor businesses are no exception. I have encountered a few guides that are in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar, putting their clients’ interests on the back burner. Most of the folks I have encountered doing business this way are young and inexperienced at what they do. As I previously mentioned, the outdoor industry has a way of weeding out the guides and outfitter like this but they are still out there. Buyer beware. All that glitters isn’t always gold.
If someone is promising you the equivalent of the moon and the stars around it for a really good price, you can almost always be sure they are going to up-sell you in the middle of your trip. African safaris are one prime example of this process. You buy a hunting package from a booking agent and the guide up-charges you for pursuing additional animals and may even charge additional trophy fees after you make the kill. While some up-selling is common practice and to be expected keep in mind that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is that way. This may sound like common advice but I have to write it here. I have seen far too many outdoor enthusiasts get swindled by a good price on a hunting or fishing trip only to be nursing their proverbial wounds after their trip because they were taken advantage of by the guide during the adventure. Again, a good way to avoid going down a bad road with a shady guide or outfitter is to ask lots of questions and do plenty of research before you pull out your wallet to pay a deposit or down payment on an adventure.
4. Do they have insurance or other protection if the unexpected happens?
A guide or outfitter’s chief concern should be your safety and well-being. While many established outdoor businesses should have insurance, others may not due to various situations and circumstances. Many guides and outfitters will have you sign a legal release form to protect the business. The thing I look for in this realm is a care for everyone’s safety while having a fun experience. The business must protect itself but I must also get the vibe that they want me to have an enjoyable and safe time with them. This is something of paramount importance if you book anything outside of the United States, Canada, or wherever you live. Remember, the legal system may be different in the state where your trip is hosted and you need to research and make sure the activity you are going to do is going to be a fit for you and anyone else that goes with you. Make sure you cover yourself. Buy additional insurance if needed or ask the guide what you will encounter that you might need to prepare for on the trip. Not doing so can mean you are putting your health or even your financial health in danger if the unexpected happens.
5. What does an outing with them require of you?
It is no secret that the biggest part of any good relationship is always good communication. Be sure to tell your prospective guide or outfitter if you have any limitations that might alter the way the trip might go. If you get sea sick easily, for instance, and you are going out on a deep sea fishing trip be sure to prepare for this before stepping foot on that boat. If you have a bad knee and plan to do a lot of hiking in the woods on a hunt, be sure your guide or outfitter knows it and can cater the trip to your needs. It is important for both parties to have realistic expectations of what you are doing during your time together. Don’t hold information back that can make your trip the best it can be.
6. What kind of gear or equipment do I need or does the guide or outfitter supply it?
I have had many guides complain that many of their clients arrive at their trip unprepared to be successful on their adventure. Communicating what is expected of the guide and of the client is important. I would rather come over prepared than be without a piece of gear or clothing I might need during the trip. Many fishing and bowfishing guide services will have all the gear you will need to have an enjoyable trip though it always pays to ask to be sure you are not leaving anything at the dock you might need. In the hunting realm, you want to make sure you have all of the right equipment to make the full use of your time in the woods or on the mountain or prairie. A good example of this is one Mexico hunting outfitter I brokered hunts for who would have special instructions getting a permit for transporting a personal rifle or shotgun into the country. For cases where this was not possible, he had guns that the ranch owned which could be rented for a nominal fee. Again be sure to ask all the questions you can think of and do your homework. Regardless what kind of trip you are on, come prepared.
On one adventure a couple of years ago, I did not bring enough waterproof cold weather gear on a winter fishing excursion and I was wet and cold most of the trip. I did not anticipate the boat taking on as much water over the sides as it did but the wind was high and the water was rough making for one tough boat ride. Even if I stood near the center console of the boat, I still got drenched. This was remedied on subsequent trips with this guide but I will never forget what it felt like the time I didn’t properly plan for the weather. As the old saying goes, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”
7. What kind of overall reputation does this guide or outfitter have?
We now live in a world where you can find out anything about almost anyone in a short amount of time. Review websites such as Yelp and Thumbtack are places where people can congregate and leave their review about a business in just about any line of work. If you can’t find any reviews on large social sharing sites like this, search local hunting and fishing forums. Here in Texas we have the Texas Hunting Forum, Texas Fishing Forum, and other very popular venues where clients can rate the successes or lack of success and share their general experience of an outing of a guide or outfitter. One of the guides I work for was surprised to see positive reviews on a social sharing site he had not even heard of before. I found these reviews from a simple search engine query and put those reviews on his website. While there are some people you will never make happy in the outdoor business, what you are looking for is a majority share of positive reviews of an outdoor business.
If you have a couple of unsatisfied customers, remember, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. If a business has been in operation for any length of time, you are going to have some dissatisfied patrons. Most outdoor business work hard to make everyone happy and have an outstanding reputation online and offline. They would not be around long if they didn’t take care of people. When in doubt, ask for permission to contact some of the business’ latest clients. If you see or hear something that was an absolute disaster, beware, but don’t be afraid to ask questions of the guide about a past client’s experience. Most businesses will be able to defend why a situation was the way that it was or it could have even been the clients fault. I have jumped on many bad PR situations for outdoor businesses in my line of work. Many of them have been caused by clients having the wrong expectations and showing up with a bad attitude or worse. Leave some room for a business to defend itself. The most important take away from this question is to do your research and do it thoroughly so you don’t have an “I told you so” moment with yourself down the line.
8. What kind of licenses will you or the guide need?
Different states and countries have different laws on what licenses and other requirements you need to have to go on an adventure. In Texas, for instance, you need a fishing license to go bowfishing even though bowfishing is more like bow hunting than fishing. You also need to have your hunter’s education class by a certain age to be able to legally hunt unless you get a deferral. Your guide should know what you need and you should prepare well in advance by gathering the things you are required to have before an adventure. Don’t be the guy or gal who waits until the last minute to get these kinds of things done.
Many guides and outfitters have to have special licenses or meet other qualifications to be able to conduct business in a given area. You should get a feel of the knowledge and experience level of a guide or outfitter by asking a few simple questions about what the laws are in the area you will be hunting, fishing, or camping. Do your homework as ignorance is not a valid excuse of you do unknowingly break the law. We now live in a world where we can research a ton of things from the palm of our hand on our Smartphone. Be empowered by being educated and don’t depend on your guide to know everything.
9. If overnight stay is required, will the arrangements they have meet my needs?
I brought up this question as I have stayed in some very nice places and some shady and questionable places in my life on outdoor adventures. Always ask for pictures of where you will be staying and the conditions that will be around you. When you deal with the outdoors and lodging, anything is possible. A mentor of mine once stayed in a place that was infested with fire ants around the bedding areas. They would crawl on him in the middle of the night while he was trying to sleep. Not a good feeling. On one fishing trip where I stayed in a cabin in the dead of winter, we had a heating unit that would trip the breaker every three or so hours. It was not much fun getting up in the middle of the night in the freezing temperatures to go outside and reset the switch. While there are many things you can prepare for, sometimes life throws you a curve ball and I have been thrown many of them.
This is another time to ask plenty of questions and, if needed, follow up questions to be sure you understand what kind of conditions you will be staying in. Sometimes you can’t plan for or predict everything but I at least like to do my due diligence where I can. That way I know it is not my fault if I have a bad experience. I like to “rough it” as much as the next outdoorsman but I still like being warm, dry, and comfortable at the end and beginning of every day. Again, I am not saying you should be a Prima Donna about the accommodations. Just make sure it will work for you or make other arrangements.
10. What will be the total cost for this adventure?
This goes back to question # 3 we asked earlier in this article. I believe you need to plan to bring enough cash to cover any need that arises on your trip. Have you figured out what trophy fees might be, if there are any? Are there additional add-on hunts or other adventures that you might want to partake of while on your trip? These are all good questions to ask your guide and yourself so you don’t end up in an uncomfortable situation. Beware of cross-sells and up-sells but understand they might be part of the way that business works. Know what you want and stick to your plan.
Have you factored in tipping your guide? Many clients don’t and many guides depend on tips. How much should you tip? I usually advise 20%-25% of the total cost of the adventure. Sometimes I figure even more if the guide did a superb job for me and my friends or family with me. Similar to going out to a good restaurant, you want to reward your guide for a good adventure. One guide I know regularly gets $1,000 tips from his clients but he works for it and is one of the best guides I personally know of in the industry. On websites I build for guides and outfitters, I often mention that tipping/gratuity is not required but it is highly appreciated. Again, some income structures for many outdoor guides working for a business largely depend on tipping for their income. The main point here is to be prepared. Don’t depend on a credit card for everything. Cash is still king for most outdoor businesses and it will be gladly accepted in most circumstances. On fishing guide I work with has a sticker on his boat that reads, “This boat does not run on Thank Yous”. In other words, there are fixed expenses a guide or outfitter has for every trip. Consider that when you hire someone. Remember, they are dedicating their time to make sure you have an enjoyable outdoor experience.
I must also mention that it is vitally important to show up to your adventure with a good attitude. I have written and spoke extensively about how many times I have seen a bad attitude from a client or even a guide in some cases ruin an otherwise good trip. This is a two-way street. Everyone has bad days from time to time but arriving with great expectations and a good attitude can solve many problems before they ever arise. Visualize what you want to happen on your trip, ask plenty of questions, practice where needed, and prepare where applicable. Be safe, have fun, and enjoy all that the outdoors has to offer.