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July 2006 – Fishing Tips

Wherever you go in the world at some stage during any game fishing trip that uses guides or ghillies there comes a time when the anglers in any party of rods will enter a kind of unofficial conclave to discuss one of the most sensitive questions on the river: how much to tip the ghillie?

Tipping has always been a thorny issue in game angling, given the high prices paid for fishing on the best river beats. Many people who fish – but by no means all – appreciate the services of a ghillie.

In fact it is not unusual for those who return year after year to the same beat to know the ghillie as a friend – part counsellor, part confident - with whom you can share your frustrations about anything related to the fishing arrangements.

In Scotland there will often be the factor – a manger or agent who rarely, if ever, is seen down by the river. The factor tends to be universally disparaged by angler and ghillie alike. It is the factor who hasn’t replaced the ghillie’s wellies, mended the hut window or dealt with any of those hundred and one niggles that can conspire to make a fishing week less than perfect.

So keeping the ghillie happy with a handsome tip is a given. The same applies to the guides supplied in saltwater angling. What did surprise me on a recent saltwater trip, however, was that the size of the tip was outlined in the angling information pack. Not only that, the proprietor rang one of my angling companions near the end of the week to make sure he knew what the tip would be.

The same owner also passed comment on my own tip, saying he was pleased that I had done as expected. What cheek! I had always regarded tipping as a personal gesture between client and guide that should have nothing to do with the owner of the business.

In these circumstances it seems to me that the tip can hardly be described as a discretionary payment. It has become more of a surcharge. If the company that runs the fishing is dictating the size of the tip, it can work that figure in to its annual employment budget, knowing more or less how much its guides will stand to earn on top of their normal wages.

I had been drinking one evening with anglers in another party that told me their guiding tips were $10 a day less than those my party was expected to pay. In a small fishing centre with a handful of rival operators this makes a difference because guides are moving between operators. It means that the operator suggesting the biggest tip is probably going to have more success attracting guides.

It will come as no surprise that the saltwater venues I’m writing about are patronised mainly by Americans whose tipping habits have left many Europeans, used to more modest levels of tipping, feeling like modern day Scrooges.

The weekly tipping conclave never fails to amuse me since many of the people with whom I fish are the sort of corporate bosses whose boardroom pay budgets and staffing bills will be determined by consultants pouring over all kinds of pay data in order to set their performances-related bonuses.

Yet these same bosses who will spend hours scrutinising such figures will huddle together and ask the age old question: “What’s the going rate this year?” This is always a tough one. You don’t want to feel you are being too stingy while, at the same time, you don’t want to be overgenerous and wreck it for everyone else.

Part of me – the socialist part – says that an employment system should no longer rely on discretionary payments and that ghillies should be paid a good wage commensurate with the sort of fee individuals charge for private guiding services. In Iceland and Norway, guides are freelance operators who set their own fees. Anglers seeking a guide in Iceland these days can expect to pay as much as Euros 400 a day. At those rates you can be sure the guides work hard for their money.

They make a difference too. In some places, such as bone fishing flats, unless you have the sharpest eyesight, a guide is going to see fish that you don’t see and that will mean a discernibly larger catch.

On the other hand, I prefer, where I know the water, to fish without a guide. There is nothing I hate more than having someone else tying my knots or choosing my flies. I want to make my own mistakes.

Where water and the best fishing tactics are new to the angler, then knowledgeable guides can be worth their weight in fishing flies. But I believe that one of their roles should be to make themselves dispensable. I want a teacher. I don’t want someone fetching my sandwich box or assembling my rod.

And when I reach the end of the week I’d like to hand over my own tip rather than something set by the fishing operator that undermines the discretionary element of tipping. To tip or not to tip has never been the question. I cannot recall, even when the service of a ghillie has been below par, a tip being withheld. But the right to do so must remain.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved