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So You Wanna Be A Guide...

By Steve Huber - January 1, 2002
Ahh, the life of a fishing guide, what a piece of cake, go fishing and get paid for it. What could possibly be better? Well, I'm going into my ninth season and let me tell you right now, there's more to it than you'd think.

Don't get me wrong, I dearly love my time on the water with clients, but there are times....

I know that some of you out there have been thinking, I've got a boat, I've got fishing tackle, I know how to catch fish and I have free time, I know, I'll start a guide service.

Well, it can be that easy, but you've got to remember that there's more to guiding than having a boat and some fishing tackle.

First of all, you have to decide if you're going to specialize in one species or are you going to be a multi-species guide. Specializing is easier, requiring less of an investment in both equipment and time. Are you going to guide on one body of water or fish "all over the place?" Fishing one body of water and/or one species, while making it easier on you (and cheaper too) does limit you. How you ask?

Well, if you spend any amount of time fishing, you know that any body of water will have hot streaks and then go cold. If you happen to have a guide job during the hot streak, life is good, but if that job comes when the lake has turned off, life as a guide can suck! That's why I made the decision to fish different lakes as well as different species.

Now, if the fishing isn't that great for walleyes on Lake X, we can go to Lake Y and fish for smallmouth. Sure, it involves more running around, more pre-fishing time, keeping tabs on more water, but when a client is paying you to put them on fish, shouldn't you be doing everything possible for them?

All right, you've decided what you're going to fish for, and on what lakes, what else is needed to start a guide service?

Well, take a good look at your boat. Is it really adequate? Is that boat large enough to safely carry you, a couple of clients, a cooler, all the tackle, bait, etc, etc? Is everything safe, operating at 100% and dependable? It has to be, or else you're not giving the client his money's worth. I've heard horror stories from clients about other guides and their equipment.

One guide showed up with a 14 foot rowboat and ancient outboard, to take 2 clients casting for muskies. They motored out onto the lake, where the guide disconnected his starting battery and hooked it to the trolling motor. After a day of fishing, and using the trolling motor, when they finally wanted to go home, the guide un-hooked the trolling motor and reconnected the starter. Guess what? They'd used the trolling motor so much that there wasn't enough juice left to turn the motor over! The recoil starter on the outboard was broken as well so the guide and clients took turns rowing back to the landing.

So, take a good long, hard look at your boat and equipment. If you don't think that it would pass a DNR or Coast Guard inspection, you're going to have to invest in repairs and upgrades.

I started guiding with a 16' aluminum deep vee boat with a 40 hp outboard. It wasn't long before I discovered that while this boat was fine for one client, it was way too small and underpowered for two clients with the type of fishing that I do. I upgraded to a 17 footer with a 75 hp outboard, and while it was better, it lacked the needed storage and was still a bit cramped when you have 12 inch muskie lures flying around. That boat was sold and now I'm running a 19 foot ProCraft SuperPro 190 with a 175 hp outboard. This boat has the room for casting, the necessary storage space and the horsepower to move the boat when it's loaded down with clients and gear.

As long as we're talking big buck items, what about your tow vehicle? Is it dependable and safe as well? If you're fishing one lake and you always plan on meeting your clients at the landing, it's not as big of a deal, but if you're like me, you'll be traveling to various lakes in a three county area. I need a safe, dependable, roomy and economical to operate tow vehicle.

I bought a 2001 Silverado 2500 HD 4x4 extended cab diesel truck. I put 10,000 miles on a year towing my boat, carrying at least 2, sometimes 3 clients, so I need something that gets good fuel economy and has the room for my clients.

Now that you've gone through your boat, look at your tackle. Do you have quality, first rate rods and reels? Most times, the guide supplies all of the tackle, and believe me, it takes a lot of tackle. Gone are the days of going fishing with two or three rods and reels. You have to be prepared and anticipate the worst, because if you guide long enough, (take my word for it) you WILL have those days when you'll wonder if you've got enough gear on board. I've had days when clients have broken rods, backlashed reels beyond any hope of picking the line clear and dropped/thrown rods and reels overboard, making me wonder if we were going to have any working tackle at the end of the day, and this is coming from a guy that goes out with a minimum of 18 rods and reels!!

Also, as long as we're talking about tackle, how's your lure selection? Gone are the days of going out with one of everything, now you've got to have at least 3 of everything. There will be days when one particular lure is the hot bait, and you're going to have one P.O.'d client in the boat if his buddy is catching all the fish and he's sitting there with egg on his face. So, you're going to have to stock up, if you've decided that muskies are going to be your fish of choice, that gets expensive when you're looking at $12 - $40 per lure. Heck, even if you're guiding walleyes, it gets pricey. I've had days when we've gone through 100 jigs fishing a rocky shoreline for 'eyes. That one particular spot is a great walleye magnet, but on each cast, if you don't hook a fish, you've hooked bottom and that jig is gone. At a quarter a pop, that starts costing you too, but if that's where the fish are, what are you going to do?

Good quality fishing line costs money too, you're going to go through line at an alarming rate, making you wonder if you should buy stock in a line company. When you're re-spooling a dozen or more reels several times a season, you're talking about a fairly major expense as well. I buy PowerPro line in 1500 yard spools. That's not cheap!

If you're like me, you'll cruise sporting goods stores/departments (driving your wife crazy in the process) looking for marked down or closeout items. I do this year round, stocking up in the winter and losing it all in the summer. But hey, if I can save a couple bucks, that's what I'm going to do. Plan on spending a minimum of $20 every time you walk into a sporting goods store.

You also have to have quality life jackets in several sizes, as well as rain gear. I tell people that they need to dress for the weather and it never fails, they show up at the motel lobby or landing dressed for a trip to the mall, regardless of what the forecast shows. Again, the client is looking for a fun day of fishing, and they can't do that when they're soaked to the skin and cold. I suppose that if they're not dressed right, you could just cut the day short, but I hate to do that to the client. So, I carry raingear in several sizes.

All right, now we've talked about the tow vehicle, the boat and the gear. So what else is there to get? Well bucko, there's still licensing and insurance. The guide license for Wisconsin is easy to get, fill out an application, send in your money and that's it, you're a guide! But what about insurance? Let me say right now, if you guide for money and you don't have guide insurance, you're an IDIOT!!!

Think about it for a minute. You've got a client or two in the boat and these guys go fishing once or twice a year, so their sea legs are iffy at best. Now, you're out there, it's choppy, the boat is rocking and they're casting large lures with three sets of razor sharp 5/0 treble hooks. What do you think the chances are for an accident of epic proportions are? Or how about this for a worst case scenario...

I heard about a guide that had taken two clients out on one of the Great Lakes, trolling for walleyes. This guide is good, with a 21 foot boat, designed for big water fishing. Well, they were into fish, not paying as much attention to the weather as they should have been. Before they knew it, a storm system had moved in on them and whipped the water into huge, dangerous waves. They pulled in the lines and were trying to make their way back to the harbor when they hit a wave wrong! One of the clients was washed overboard and ended up dying of hypothermia. Can you imagine the lawsuit? Now, still think that you don't need insurance?

Don't tell me that you've got boat insurance and that's good enough, cuz I doubt it. I too had boat insurance, thinking that I was covered. But talking to my insurance agent, I found out that if you're taking clients out for money, regular boating insurance won't cover you. My premiums went from $118 a year to over $500! And you have to have liability and medical coverage, as well as insurance covering the boat and contents. You won't believe how quickly those contents add up either. I estimate that I have well over $5,000 tied up in rods, reels, lures, locators and trolling motor.

All right, now you've got the tools for guiding, what's next? You've got to have clients if you want this to be a money making proposition. That too takes time and money my friend. Gone are the days when you get some business cards printed up, put them in a couple bait/tackle shops and get clients. I'm not saying that this won't work, just don't expect to be very busy. Nope, in this day and age, you have to market yourself. This means building a website, a good one that will answer many of the client's questions, make them want to book a trip with you, or at least contact you for additional information. This isn't easy. Even if you have the most fantastic website on the net, just because you built it, that still doesn't mean that the world will beat a path to your door. You have to have someone host the website, that part is easy with Lake-Link offering website hosting, but it's still an annual expense that needs to be covered.

You should be doing things that get your name out in the world. That means doing things like this, writing articles for various publications, it means promoting your service through other places as well, maybe offering to do seminars for fishing clubs or tackle shops. This will help draw business. Probably one of the best methods for getting your name out is sport shows. But these are not cheap, you have to rent booth space, there's travel expenses, lodging, meals, show displays, embroidered shirts, hats, etc, brochures to hand out, promotional items, etc, etc, etc. This can run into some major coin, but how busy do you want to be? If you're hoping to do this full time, you're going to have to do this and more. How much more is entirely up to you.

OK, now we've got the financial aspect more or less covered. Now think about the time you're going to have to invest in guiding. You have to stay on top of the fish, so now you have to be out fishing, in all weather conditions, because again, you owe it to the clients to make their time on the water as productive as possible. You can't pick and choose the weather that you're going to fish in. It seems to never fail, the weather will be perfect for fishing, until the client gets into the boat, then a major cold front blows in. You won't get a lot of repeat business if at the end of the day, all you have to show for your efforts is a lot of fresh air and a nice boat ride. So you have to be able to produce fish under all weather conditions and that my friend, isn't easy. So even though it's cold, raining, blowing and generally nasty and miserable, you have to be out there. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but believe me, some days it is.

All right, that still doesn't sound bad, and most times it's not. But remember, there's going to be times that you're not feeling good, or the Packer game is on, or some friends want you to hang out and pop a couple of cold, frosty ones and you've GOT to go pre-fish for an upcoming job.

Then, you've got the clients themselves. 95% of my clients are great people, a joy to fish with but that remaining 5% will drive you nuts. There's a reason that I have all of this gray hair and I can't blame it all on my kids.

You have to have good people skills. It's not enough that you're a great angler, when you're in the boat with a client, you have to wear many different hats. You have to be a teacher, a coach, a cheerleader, a story-teller, a stand up comic and sometimes even a marriage counselor! You won't believe some of the conversations that I've had in the boat with clients. You hear all of their hopes, fears, aspirations and frustrations. You'll hear about past successes and comparisons to "Guide Joe". It doesn't matter that Guide Joe was guiding them on a Canadian Fly In and that the walleyes were hitting anything that moved. Now you're fishing cold front conditions in August, with jet skis, water skiers, pontoon boats ripping around the lake with bright sunny skies and a 20 degree temperature drop, they caught walleyes throwing shallow running crankbaits and "ripped them up." "Why aren't we throwing Rapalas?" "Guide Joe said that Rapalas were the best walleye lure ever made!" Try to explain that they were fishing pre-spawn walleyes in shallow water and now you're trying to dredge up inactive fish in 25 feet of water, they won't believe you, because "Guide Joe said...."

You'll find out that there's people out there that you could actually, cheerfully pitch overboard. I had one client that when he missed a nice muskie because he didn't believe in figure 8's and didn't do one when the fish hit at boatside, started cussing a blue streak and threw a St. Croix rod and Ambassaduer 6500 reel just as far as he could. As I watched the rod disappear in 20 - 30 feet of water, knowing that there was no way I'd ever find it, I couldn't believe my eyes. The client refused to reimburse me for the rod, demanding that I give him another rod and reel! That was the only time that I returned to the landing and demanded that he GET OUT OF THE BOAT NOW!

Guide long enough and you'll find out that catching fish is actually a small part of guiding. I know some anglers that even though they make unbelievable catches, I wouldn't want them to guide me, because their people skills suck. Conversation while fishing? Forget it, you've got to catch that fish. Tell a joke or get them to crack a smile? No way Jose. Miss a fish a get bitched at. Not exactly what I would call an enjoyable day. Nope, you've got to keep the clients spirits up during those fishless times, telling jokes, stories of past successes and failures, make small talk that shows you're interested in their lives, all the while trying to figure out a pattern that will start producing fish.

You'll have to be able to teach your clients to cast, retrieve and explain what the feel of a walleye picking up a jig in 20 feet of water feels like. You have to be able to cheer them up when they just screwed up on the fish of a lifetime, answer questions about anything and everything while controlling the boat, ducking lures, re-tying lures, re-baiting hooks, again still thinking of the next move in your fishing plan.

But, for the most part, my clients are great people. Many of the clients have become close friends, some to the point that I feel odd taking their money. I get Christmas cards, birthday cards, invitations to family functions, their or their children's weddings and the like. It's people like this that keep me coming back, season after season.

I love the look on a client's face when they hook into their first muskie, when that big smallmouth leaps from the water 10 feet from the boat. I love to see the closeness that develops between a father and his child as they share a common experience. One of the best feelings in the world for me is at the end of the day, a client tells me "Thanks Steve, I had a great day and I really learned a lot about fishing today." That's a reward that I can't put a price on.

I've just briefly touched on the high points of guiding, there's still the pricing, covering expenses, bookkeeping, records, etc. Remember, you can't price yourself so high that people can't afford you, but you still have to cover your expenses, plus make a decent hourly wage. Don't think that you'll ever get rich being a guide, "cuz it ain't gonna happen." Heck, when you get right down to it, you could probably make more money flippin burgers at McDonald's!

But, if you think that you have the time, money, ability, people skills and the mental toughness to put it all together, become a fishing guide. You'll find out real quick if you've got what it takes.

I don't mean to scare you off if you're considering becoming a guide, I just want you to benefit from my experience and go into this venture with your eyes wide open. If you're considering this, feel free to contact me, I'll give you all the help I can. Just don't expect me to tell you my good spots :)

So, until next month, See Ya,

Author Steve Huber

Steve Huber
Steve Huber, an avid angler with over 35 years of experience (man, he's old) is one of the few multi-species guides in the Rhinelander area. He's been operating G & S Guide Service for 8 years now and loves to fish for Muskies, Northern Pike, Largemouth/Smallmouth Bass and the occasional Walleye (in no particular order). A person who loves to see others succeed, he's an educator while on the water and when he's not teaching you something, he'll regale you with tales of adventures and mis-adventures gleaned from his years on the water. If you liked this article, you can check out Steve's web site at
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