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Hire a guide? Or do it yourself?

As we crawl deeper into the "cabin fever days" of mid-winter, thoughts of brighter and greener days can not help but enter our minds. This is the prime time to be thinking about planning a trip, whether it be a relatively nearby adventure like a trip to one (or more) of northern Wisconsin's many spectacular warmwater rivers, a trip to the Lower Wisconsin River, a trip to some of my Driftless homewaters, or a trip a bit further from home to chase trout out west, salmon in Alaska, or something even more exotic. Do you hire a guide or do it yourself?

Tim holding George's bass
Tim Landwehr holding a Smallmouth Bass for George Close on a trip with Tight Lines Fly Fishing.

The answer certainly depends upon a huge number of factors but I am usually a do it yourself kind of angler. Personally, I enjoy the figuring it out and even struggling a bit to do so. Then again, I am a pretty experienced angler and much more of a "zen angler" than I used to be. Of course financial situation is a huge consideration for most - myself most certainly included. Hiring a guide is not cheap - nor should it be when you think of the time, equipment, and other things involved with guiding.


In order to be as transparent as I can, these are my thoughts which are formed by my experiences which are relatively few. I have only hired a guide a few times - I would do it more if I could afford but I also like to do it myself.

My first guided trip - a smallmouth trip down one of the branches of the Flambeau River

Why Hire a Guide?


To catch more fish, duh! I think that is a poor answer to the question. I mean sure, it is fishing so it is about catching fish but there are so many better reasons to hire a guide. An experienced, competent angler that has done some research, stopped at fly shops, and talked to a few fellow anglers should be able to figure it out most places they go to fish. And that is a post for another day...


Better answers for the question, why hire a guide?, in my opinion are:


To help develop skills faster. There are many ways to develop more and better fly fishing skills but they all involve you doing it. Hiring a guide should help improve your casting, your ability to read the water, to figure out where fish are (and where they are not), and really any other basic skill (tying knots, building leaders, mending, etc.). Good guides should be flexible and be able to help any angler learn something new. I have improved my casting, ability to read the water (particularly on the Lower Wisconsin where this is VERY difficult), knot tying, and other skills through guides.


Save yourself time. Figure it out takes time - hiring a guide saves you the time it takes to figure it out. By going with a guide, you are, in part, paying for somebody else's past efforts and experiences on those waters. I have written a number of times about learning curves - there is absolutely no better way to shorten the learning curve than by fishing and learning from knowledgeable and experienced anglers. I was incredibly fortunate to have great mentors that helped me shorten the learning curve but not everyone is so fortunate. I will go as far as to say that if you can afford to hire a guide, there is no better way to learn about fly fishing.

Scene from crash camp
Ben Lubchansky unhooking yet another Smallmouth Bass during our Crash Camp trip with Black Earth Angling Co.

Gain access to difficult to access waters. Honestly, this the reason that I have hired guides most of the time. There are two general ways this works. First, a boat, someone that knows the waterbody, and the ability to cover a lot of otherwise inaccessible or difficult to access. Warmwater fishing in Northern Wisconsin and the rest of the Midwest is a good example. The Lower Wisconsin River is much easier accessed and better fished out of jet boat - anyone that has fished it by canoe, kayak, or wading knows this well. Second, there are states with what I will call lesser water laws where access to water can be "pay to play". The spring creeks of Montana's Paradise Valley are one example but in many states, floating and touching the bottom is illegal and some outfitters have some paid landowners for access that is not open to the public.


Spend an enjoyable day on the water. Ultimately, this is the goal of every day on the water. A day with a guide is likely to be a very enjoyable day on the water as their job is essentially to ensure that you have a good day on the water. Certainly we hope that day includes catching lots and lots of big fish but your guide only has so much control over that. Some days are tough and guides can only do so much to make fish bite. Your odds are better on the tough days with a guide but there are still going to be tough days and there is only so much that can be done about cold fronts, high sun, or high / cold water. What they do have control over is most of the rest of your experience and learning. They have some control over the conversation, the food, your ability to try new and different gear, flies, techniques, and other aspects of the day. A day with a guide should be a day with an experienced, personable angler that is there to help you have an enjoyable day and become a better fly angler.

Ben and Mike on the Lower Wisconsin
Bass camp on the Lower Wisconsin River with Black Earth Angling Company - an all around fantastic experience.

Reasons NOT to Hire a Guide


Yes, back to catching fish again...there are no guarantees that you are going to have a great day of catching because you hired a guide. You are not guaranteed to catch a ton of fish or your personal best ("PB") - and if you are, run, don't walk away. A good guide should help increase your odds of it being a good day of fishing, catching fish, and catching your PB but nothing is guaranteed.


It is expensive. I totally understand why it is expensive - you are paying for a person's time, experience, equipment (rods, reels, boats, vehicles, etc.), and all that goes with a guided trip. At the same time, not everyone can afford to pay for a day that is typically $300 on the low end and $500 to $600 for a day that involved a boat. And those are without a reasonable tip on top of that (typically around 20% of the cost of the trip). Of course, a driftboat is at least a $7500 investment (very likely quite a bit more) and adding a motor and a vehicle to pull a boat with drastically increases that investment. And you are paying to rent that boat and vehicle. Most full days of guided fishing are 8 hours or more and when you add in another hour for the guide on either side of that, a $50 to $60 hourly rate when they also have boats, vehicles, insurance, gear, food, and other things to pay for is certainly not outrageous but for most of us, cost makes a guided trip a "once in a great while" experience.

Me fishing with Shawn on the oars.
A "do it yourself" trip with friends with drift boats (not pictured) and rafts. It's good to know people with nice boats...

Figuring it out is half the fun! Much of a great trip is in the planning - scouring maps, books, internet resources, and your friends and acquaintances is half the fun. It is all part of the anticipation ahead of a trip. I enjoy the process of learning what hatches to expect, what local flies work, where access is, and all that goes into planning a fishing trip. There is a sense of accomplishment going into a place and catching fish after doing the work to know what to expect.

Waist deep in a Colorado trout river.
Figuring it out in Colorado.

What have been your experiences?

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