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He wore faded bib overalls, stood at least 6 feet 5 inches and had an upper lip with an impressive handlebar mustache that quite obviously had been tended with care.

Before he said a word or ushered us onto his drift boat that rested on the moonshine-clear shores of the Missouri River near Craig, Mont., he had my good friend and me feeling intimidated with his towering presence and gruff demeanor.

“He scares the living daylights out of me,” said my buddy, putting a finer point on our state of mind.

This was two decades ago, and both of us were on our first fly-fishing trip outside of Minnesota. We had saved enough money to pay for a week’s lodging, travel and, best of all (or so we thought), a guide to float the Big Mo for one glorious day. I was beyond giddy, seduced by the marketing mavens who still immortalize the American West as a fly-fishing Mecca. Why, my money clip was fat enough to even pay a handsome tip (above and beyond the daily guide fee), as I had been instructed days earlier by a fly-fishing friend who had fished Big Sky Country for many years.

“My boat, my rules,” said our guide, by way of introduction. “It’s my way or the highway.”

If his introduction wasn’t prickly enough, our salty sea captain, whom we later dubbed Mr. Sunshine, seemed annoyed at our mere presence. The guide told us how we were going to fish (with large subsurface nymphs), where we were going to fish (on the river’s foam line) and what we should do under all circumstances (listen to him and never deviate from his instructions, if, of course, we wanted to catch fish).

But I was less concerned about catching fish than I was on how we fished. I wanted to cast imitation “dry flies” to large, surface-feeding trout — which roamed the Missouri in spades — and not nymphs below the water’s surface. After all, the thrill of watching a trout inhale a fly is the reason I started to fly-fish.

“Sir, we’d like to float until we see rising fish … and then cast to them with dry flies,” I said timidly. “We’re not worried about catching fish. We just want to cast dries to trout feeding on the surface. That’s how we prefer to fish.”

“My boat, my rules,” he said dismissively, shaking his head.

Long story short: We floated the Missouri for nearly eight hours, spied some beautiful country, cast oversized nymphs that resembled lead-head jigs and, yes, caught some big brown trout. And while our guide (a retired rancher, we would eventually learn) worked hard for his guide fee, the overall experience was as satisfying as eating a rancid Spam sandwich. “I don’t even want to tip the guy,” my buddy whispered in my ear as the three of us bellied up to the bar for an adult beverage at day’s end.

Tips from the Midwest

I recently told my Missouri River story to three veteran Midwestern guides (two from Minnesota, one from Wisconsin), and all were a little horrified by my experience.

All agreed on one point: Tipping etiquette in the fishing industry (at least in our neck of the woods) follows the same general rules that apply to all service industry professionals. Generally speaking, a 20 percent (or more) tip means you were very satisfied with the outing; tipping less than 10 percent communicates you were dissatisfied. Tipping amounts, they say, should always reflect quality of service.

“Tipping is customary in the Midwest, but I never expect one,” said my friend Wendy Williamson, owner of Hayward Fly Fishing Company in Hayward, Wis. “I never go into a guide trip thinking about a tip or how much I’m going to be tipped — it would ruin the entire experience. I’m there to serve my client and to teach. If my client wants to fish a certain way, we fish a certain way. It’s all up to the client. It’s their day.”

Added Williamson: “Some clients can’t afford to tip at all, let alone well. They may have been saving for this one trip for an entire year and can only afford a small tip. That’s just fine by me. I’m never insulted by a small tip.”

But if you’re thinking about hiring a fishing guide this summer, keep in mind that independent guides have high overhead costs and derive a large percentage of their incomes from tips. They also provide the boat, the gear (rod and reel), bait, tackle and a library’s worth of angling knowledge. If you have a good experience, be generous or even excessive, if the spirit of the occasion moves you. If you don’t have a good experience, don’t insult them and their profession by stiffing them with nothing.

“I’m always grateful for a tip because I work hard for my customers and my margins are pretty tight,” said Dick (Griz) Grzywinski of St. Paul, who has guided for walleyes and other species across Minnesota for more than 40 years. “But I also think you have to earn a good tip and you should never expect one. I once had a CEO from some big company give me $1,500 tip after he caught a 14-pound, eight-ounce walleye. For him, it was a fish of a lifetime. He obviously appreciated it.”

As we stood at that Montana bar after a day on the Missouri River, our crusty fly-fishing guide finally unthawed after a few beers. We realized he was a decent man, just trying to make a living in a stressful profession where income is seasonal and often unpredictable.

After dinner (the tab of which my buddy and I picked up) we both tipped the guide 10 percent. It was likely a smaller gratuity than he was accustomed to, although I’m certain it sent a stronger message than no tip at all.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer living in Prior Lake. Contact him at