Sunday, January 11, 2015

Do's and Don'ts for Hunting and Fishing Guides

In our society, business transactions reflect the differential valuation of something across some type of barrier (time/distance/rate).  This is also known as "supply and demand."   Although demand can be artificially manipulated, its power is that it defines the valuation of the current and foreseeable quality and quantity of almost anything.  In the case of hunting and fishing guides, the supply and demand revolve around things like:

1) guide's skill and knowledge
2) guide's local knowledge
3) guide's access to good habitat
4) guide's ability to teach
5) guide's business practices
6) guide's passable (or better) gear
7) guide's relative availability (real or perceived)

I have a highly varied experience with hunting and fishing guide that spans decades, states, and game species.   I paid a premium for my last guided trip, and it was phenomenal.  I paid a bargain for my previous guided trip, and it was pretty good (I wasn't disappointed).  The guided trip before that was a near-failure, and I'll be honest here.  It was the guide's fault.  Well, his dog's fault.  Which was the guide's fault.

Now, I know that many of you have read Kirk Deeter's bit that "guides are the stewards of the rivers," and blah blah blah.   That's like saying "Cops are good guys" and "Americans are amazing."  All of those statements are true some of the time - perhaps most of the time, but generally one wouldn't state them for the record as an absolute fact.  I was surprised to see earlier this week that Gink and Gasoline's Louis Cahill took up Deeter's mantra on the infallibility of guides (perhaps inadvertantly), wondering how it's even possible that clients can have a bad day on the woods or water, because 1) clients should be decent customers (he's 100% correct), and 2) (inferred) guides are infallible (I estimate he's 60% correct).   What follows after the inferred question of "why can't you give the guide your money and just have a good time?" is actually a very good list of suggestions that clients should always evaluate prior and during their trip.  It really is a good list.

The problem is that it's not the only time that a list like this has been published, and yet, there's never any apparent interest in developing a similar list of do's and don'ts for professional fishing and hunting guides.   The only really fair assumption I can make about that is the fact that a large number of hunting and fishing bloggers are also hunting and fishing guides, and as any writer is inclined to do, they are more likely to write about how they were frustrated on the water, as opposed to how their actions or mistakes frustrated someone else.  I am not a guide, but I promise that the nearly 800 posts on this blog continue unexamined experiences of that nature - how my outdoor mistakes or bad luck impacted others negatively. Edit: that's a circuitous way of saying that I whine about my own situation while ignoring how it affected others' situations.

So after you've read Louis' list of client do's and don'ts (which is required reading, honestly), here's a list of Guide Do's and Don'ts from Your Next Most Likely Customer.

1.  Be aware of your differential - your market value. Your gear should be better than your client's.  Your skill (duck calling, knot tying, etc) should be better than your client's.  Your knowledge of the local target species and local habitat should be better than the client's.  If those things don't exist, you are not a guide, you are a paid fishing or hunting buddy.  I am not paying you $200-700 to use a wood paddle, paddle a leaky kayak, hunt over decoys with pellet holes, or watch you spook fish as you fish ahead of me, at a fishing hole where I already fish by myself for free.  No.  That's called "hunting and fishing with my brothers," and it's free.  Except for the beer, because they drink it all. Jerks.

2.  Leave Your Asshole Dog at Home.  If your dog is an asshole, your clients won't want to hunt over him/her.  So just don't.  If I want to hunt over a dog that barks when ducks are tolling, that flushes quail 90 yards in front of me, that shits in the bed of my truck for no reason, that eats the head off of a goose instead of retrieving it, or who eats rabbit turds instead of flushing rabbits, I could call any of my buddies and have their dumb dogs come out with me for free.   On multiple occasions I have had guides ask me to pay for such a privilege.  To Hell with your dog's pedigree.  Get Chief Wampanus Colussus VII x Magnolia Ebony Southern Beauty XXIV trained before you ask people to pay for its work.   I mean, seriously.

At this point, let me say that if I am paying to fish with you, do not bring your damn dog either.  I literally had this happen once.  Another story for another day.  Sigh. 

3.  Do not take your clients to spots they could easily access otherwise (unless previously agreed); do not take clients to burnt out spots.   I once had a kayak fishing guide escort me less than 10 yards from the boat ramp to "the secret spot" across the inlet, across from the public fishing pier.   TEN YARDS. Mile upon mile of creek were immediately available.  Bad experience.  Yet, when discussed prior to the trip, I've had great experiences on remote (>10 yards from put-in, ha ha) public waters that I hadn't previously fished.  In those cases, I had decent outings and more importantly, learned crucial things about the dynamics of those particularly waters and the fish that live in them.

It's also important not to take clients to burnt out spots out of your own tiredness or habit.  Scouting should tell you whether water or woods are ready to accept more hunters or anglers.   Savvy clients will know if you are taking them to burnt out spots by the nature of apparent human use (put in, footprints in sandbars, spent shells, monofilament in the trees), as well as the obvious spookiness of game species.  Just don't do it.   The impact to your reputation will be significant.

4.  If hunting, do not take your client to public land or water where any (real) chance of other hunters exists.  This relates to #3, but adds a safety component.  If we are hunting, I am paying you good money to put me where the target species is "likely" to be, and a place where other human beings are not likely to screw it up.  Also for $150-$600 per day, I prefer to not be shot in the face by a hunter who is legally hunting and minding his or her own business on public land/water.   There's no telling whether deer, ducks, bears, boars or bunnies will actually materialize where we hunt (while we're there), or whether I will shoot straight at the moment of truth, if the moment arrives.  If I was expecting those, I would be an unreasonable client.  But I expect that when the sun rises on our "perfect setup," that I cannot see Cousin Delbert across the creek with his 8 mojo ducks, 200 floating decoys, and 6 hunters, right across from us.

5.  Always scout.  And if you didn't, do not lie.   By far the worst guided experience of my life came as a result of a guide lying about his extent of scouting an area and the frequency with which he took parties to hunt the area (that guide also violated tips #1 - #4 above, as well as #7-#9 below).   This guy was literally wrong about everything.   At one point we demanded that he put away his duck call and not use it anymore.   Our setup was 100% wrong and we spent the day watching ducks and geese fly exactly opposite of the way our guide said they would....and we (by ourselves) found the mother lode of geese by ourselves after the trip, less than a mile from where we hunted, and in clear view of the public road.   Our guide didn't scout, and rather than delay or lose the money from our trip, he took us on an absolutely awful hunt.  Then he lied about it, which was just ignorant.

6.   Have your shit together.  If you're the consummate, error-free professional that Kirk and Louis profess that you are, then do not be late.  Do not forget to pick up flies (or bait or your own ammo).  Do not forget a rod.  Do not forget to provide directions.  Do not forget to pay any access permit fees ahead of the trip.  Do not forget how to get to your site.  Don't plan on asking your client for a jump start.  Many of your clients work in the pressure cooker of corporate life.  Whether they are 23 or 73, they are expected to act professionally all the time they're on the clock.  They (we) expect the same of you, our paid guide.   Having an outdoors job in the fish and wildlife field is not an excuse for this stuff.  Trust me, I know.  Sigh.

7.  Err on the Side of Canceling (or Not Scheduling) a Potentially Bad Trip.   My most recent guide told me, "You know, we could go tomorrow, but I'd like one more day to scout.  I know that's your day, but do you think you could wait one more day for a possibly better trip?"  I nearly peed in my pants.  If you ask many guides, "What's the best day next week?" they will answer, "ANY DAY YOU CAN GO!"  If you say, "No, I mean, what day are we likely to have the *best* experience?" they respond "EVERY DAY IS AWESOME!"   They want to book a trip, and I get that, but when you book inherently bad trips (i.e. unfavorable weather is headed in, stream flows are poor, water clarity is poor, ducks aren't flying, etc), it just means that client will never be your client again.   If you take me trout fishing and the water is chocolate milk, or you insist that goose hunting on a 65 degree will be "epic," I'm going to be disappointed (see #1 and #4 above).   I'm flabbergasted at how many guides appear to be OK with a business model that involves 100% new, one-time clients.  Really?

You might lose my business this week if you say, "Sorry man, there's not much going on and I don't want to take your money, let's schedule something for next week after the cold front passes," but the reality is that I will assume that you're a professional, you have your shit together, and you're honestly interested in putting me on the target species to the extent possible.  That simple act of pre-emptively canceling a bad trip means that I'm probably going to book with you multiple times in the future because I trust your judgment and your respect for my time and money.  Thank you.  I'll tell all my friends about you, too.

7.  Book the trip with realistic, solid expectations.  I'm a good client.  When I book a trip, I share my expectations and skill level with the guide.   The good guides tell me generally what they hope to expect, "Well, x species is not working well, but y species is pretty hot, we can chase that if you'd like, and kind of take it from there...North Creek is blown out but West Creek might work, we'll have to see."  The bad guides tell me, "It's gonna be epic!"  "Oh we're gonna put you right on top of 'em!"  "GEESE IN YOUR FACE BRO!" (actual quote).   Guess which expectations aren't disappointments?  Guess which guides get referrals from me?

8.  Do Not Try to Adjust Expectations During the Trip.    Son of a gun, if I hear one more guide say, "That's why they call it fishing, not catching, nyuk, nyuk!!!!"  I might just....well....nevermind.  A suitably annoying alternate is "That's why they call it huntin', not killin'!" There are valid (and not so valid) reasons why our trip might not be great.   A steady, open line of communication during our trip (something Louis Cahill correctly advocates for on the client's side) will outline these issues, ranging from "I made a mistake with this tide," to "Damnit, the wind forecast was wrong," to "See that spot?  That's our spot.  Now see those dolphins? They just ate our fish"  will allow your clients to logically come around to whatever the reality of the day may be.

Don't succumb to the temptation to either spout of corny one-liners or alternately, to start haggling for future "half off" bookings because "it's not working out."  Give your client the experience that you discussed prior to the trip, to the extent that it's possible (if the fish don't bite and the ducks don't fly, there's nothing to be done about that).  After the client calls the trip (#9 below), you can discuss future deals if you think it's appropriate (the good client won't ask you to do so).

9.  Let the Client Call the Trip (Within Reason).   I have yet to see this one handled really well, despite the alleged infallibility of fishing and hunting guides that I've been reading so much about lately.  It's actually a very complex and sensitive thing, so there's no wonder it's hard to handle. When I'm having an unproductive (note I didn't say "bad") trip with a good guide, sometimes I'm just done with it.  The guide, at that moment, has a lot of things to handle.  One is that he/she knows I'm not satisfied with the trip's outcome (even though it may have been a good experience overall).  Two is that the guide likely has the confidence (and experience) that perhaps the target species will pop up "at any minute," so as a result, he/she doesn't want to end the trip on a whim.   Data supports the guide on this one.

But in general, if the client is ready to go, then saddle up and end the trip.   If time is up on the trip, or if another party is waiting to start their guided trip, then this is a non-issue.  But I'd like to see clients be more active in deciding when the guided trip ends, and I'd like to see guides honor that.

10.  Your Personal Business is Not Financial Leverage.  At the end of two very different guided trips - one amazing and one horrible, I've had the two very different guides - one great and one awful-  lay on me their personal trip about how bad their finances are, and how they need a generous tip to keep going.  In one case (the good guide) this seemed to be potentially true, but I felt like it was fairly inappropriate (after all, the price is the price, and the tip is the tip, right?).  In the other case (awful guide), we were standing inbetween my 15 year old Tacoma and his brand new, $60,000 F350 while he talked about he couldn't make his daughter's private college tuition bill on his pension (note, I have no pension).  No lie.

It would be inappropriate for me to leverage a lower guided trip cost by describing my student loan debt and how I work for a charity, right?  I think so.   The same applies to the other side of the equation.  If you need more money, charter more trips or charge more money.   Or do what I had to do until age 40 - work a second job, get the money, and stop complaining.

In conclusion......Writing this post was an interesting exercise - I know that guides know other guides who do bad work.  And I could provide a pretty hilarious list of the serially-convicted guides who abuse our fish and wildlife resources on a regular basis (so much for being "teachers of the river").  I think that guides and guiding can be better, and should be better - just as their clients should be better.   I'd like to think that as a result of that, we'd see more successful guides and more happy clients. 

Thanks for stopping by.

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