Photo illustration by Travis Rathbone
Twenty minutes after we launched on the Delaware River, the worst fishing guide I ever hired told me he hated his job and that I was stupid for expecting to catch muskies there in April. He failed to mention either of these fun facts when I first called him—and before he cashed my deposit check. That was seven years ago, and if I had taken the time to vet the guy first instead of trusting a business card, I might not have endured such an awkward, hopeless day. I swore I’d never make that mistake again.
The best reference for a guide or lodge is a thumbs-up from a buddy. If you don’t have that, you can get a good idea of the kind of guide you’d be dealing with by spending a few hours online. Pick your species, pick your location, then digitally pick apart the area’s outfitters. Here’s how I run a background check.
1. Get Social
Nowadays, a guide’s social media pages are more critical marketing tools than his website, as they often give better insight into his business. Facebook allows a guide to post up-to-the-minute or daily reports. My friend and trout guide Joe Demalderis posts at least one photo to Instagram every day from the water—whether it’s a shot of a client’s fish, hatching bugs, or just scenery. This kind of consistency gives you an idea of how often a guide is on the water. The more he’s booked, the more likely it is he’s popular and reputable. Scroll back through a guide’s feed and make some mental notes. If there were big gaps between posts during prime time, take warning.
2. Clear The Webs
While many guides rely solely on social media to book trips, smart lodges and outfitters still maintain websites. If I click on one and it looks like it was built in 1995—with star-field background and GIFs of jumping fish—I’m skeptical. In my opinion, outfitters that don’t care about updating don’t really care too much about attracting new clients. I look for clean, modern web designs that are easy to navigate with information that doesn’t appear to have been written by a third grader. Bios of the operation’s guides are important to me, too, as are quality photos of the accommodations. Video tours are even better.
3. Fire At Will
The best thing you can do with an unfamiliar outfitter or guide is ask tons of questions. E-mail is a good way to communicate, but the phone is better. You’re potentially putting up a lot of money, which gives you the right to talk through every step of the program. No matter how small or detailed a query, it should be answered thoroughly and courteously. If it seems like you’re bothering the guy when you ask how old his boat is, or about meals the lodge serves, or what tackle you should bring, then maybe he doesn’t want—or deserve—your business.
Tackling the TSA
Here’s what the TSA’s website says about fishing gear: You may wish to pack expensive reels or fragile tackle that does not pose a security threat (small flies) in your carry-on baggage. As a frequent flyer, I’ve gotten into several debates over this verbiage, which leaves room for interpretation. I was once told my reels were O.K., but I could strangle someone with the line. Although my selection of redfish flies were “fragile” they were not “small” enough for a New Orleans agent, hence considered lethal weapons. To avoid the headache, I no longer try to carry on hooks of any size, tools of any kind, or reels loaded with line. Pack these items between clothes or towels in your checked bag.