Get Advice and Referrals from Your Network
This can be as conversational as directly asking anglers you know, in person, or by using fishing forums, Facebook groups, or your general network on social media. There are quite a few great fishing groups and forums out there, too, including some that are specialized by geography, type of water, species, and more.
Chances are that you probably have a friend or can access advice from someone who is happy to provide a referral. If they had a great experience, you can have a better idea of where to start. If nothing else, consider getting referrals from a travel agent who has heard feedback from clients.
Check with Each Guide About Training, Certifications, Permits, Licenses, and Insurance
Some may say that this matters more on federally regulated waters like interstate waterways and coastal water ("Coast Guard waters"), but we would stress that you will be less likely to learn a lesson the hard way, on any body of water, when a guide or charter service has their training and paperwork in order.
Rules can vary from country to country and state to state, and although you should be able to count on the guide to be the expert, it is always good to ask about the guide's training, certifications, permits, licenses, and insurance. If they have them in order, you can be more confident that they are serious about guide work.
Make Note of Experience
Whether you get a referral or are doing a search online, make note of the guide's experience. The guide may be a tournament angler with some wins under their belt. They may have a long history of providing services on one body of water (or several). They may have expertise that spans several species, too. Relatedly, it's good to ask how many days a year they do guide work, full time or a certain number of days part time.
Whatever their experience is, check to see if the depth and breadth of it lines up with what you want to get out of the trip.
Ask the Guide About Equipment
This may be a tougher one for newer anglers and you can always go deeper with this question, but it can be very important nonetheless.
A reputable guide will have most (if not all) the equipment needed for an outing, including safety equipment which is especially important when fishing large lakes, rivers, and saltwater.
If you're unsure of how to ask, just be candid. Say that you value their experience on about equipment and want to make sure all your bases are covered.
As a starting point, consider asking the following questions:
- "What gear and equipment do you supply to make the trip a success?"
- "What do I need to bring?"
- "What can I do to be better-prepared for this trip?"
- "In the event of any kind of trouble, what do you do and what equipment do you have to make this trip safe?"
This isn't meant to be a daunting task, but it can definitely help you weed out any subpar options, identify good ones, and even identify great fishing guide services.
Explore their Reviews
Reviews are good to consider, but look at them with a big grain of salt. Sometimes reviewers had unreasonable expectations. Sometimes they write their review when they are having a bad day. And often-times, people only leave a review when they have a bad experience, and this can be a poor sample when people don't review good or great experiences.
In any case though, it helps to see the quantity of reviews out there, the overall temperature of the reviews, and the details within the reviews. Don't skip the reviews when looking for a great fishing guide service — just try to give them the right amount of weight.
Make Note of Repeat Customers
Whether you look for this when you are gathering referrals, when you are looking at reviews, or when talking directly to a guide service, repeat customers are a great sign of performance. People don't keep coming back to a guide service that underperforms.
Gauge their Work Ethic
There are more than a few ways to get a sense of a guide's work ethic. You may be able to get a sense of it based on reviews or first-hand accounts from people who have used their services. You may be able to sense it from their website, Facebook page, or a business listing they have. And you may be able to gauge it when you talk directly to them.
For the best results, consider an all-of-the-above approach, consider comparable guides in the area, and be ready to ask questions. This will allow you more information and more opportunity to let the guides demonstrate how much they can provide a truly positive and special experience.
Look for Honesty and Character
As in-house contributors have advised, along with those commenting on social media, honesty and character matter immensely. They are more difficult to discern, but they are foundational for how a guide approaches what they do.
Even if rods are bending all day, a bad attitude, questionable ethics, or a subpar character can sour the experience. We don't believe there are very many out there to beware of, but on the flip-side, honesty and character can also take an otherwise good outing and make it a great one.
For an optimal experience, consider how character and personality can do that much more for your trip with a guide who is also kind, experienced, and can demonstrate the results you'd like to see from an outing. For a few examples of how this plays out, great guides will often:
- take the time to teach
- share what they know about the area
- tell some good stories
- go above and beyond to help you land fish
When guides take these approaches, they really can make the whole experience something to remember.
Consider Community Involvement / Philanthropic Involvement
This tip could be an extension of the previous section, but we thought it important enough to call out as an indicator of a great fishing guide service. Simply put, it speaks volumes when a guide is involved in their community.
We've seen it manifest in a bunch of different ways, too, including guides who volunteer with area clean-ups, some who help with derbies, others who take veterans fishing, some who take kids fishing, and many who give discounts to people who serve our communities (like first responders, teachers, etc).
If you see a guide doing these things that help a community succeed, chances are that they will have the right motivation and drive to help you succeed on your guided fishing trip.