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Photo contributed by Nick Carter / Captain Randy Cnota, who runs CNote Charters out of Panama City, Florida, steers the boat while also making sure young angler Nicholas Carter is not overwhelmed by a big bonito.

For newcomers to the sport and for veterans prospecting new waters, hiring a guide is the best way to increase the odds of a good fishing trip. It doesn't matter if you're interested in a half-day on a trout stream or a billfish charter on the Gulf Stream; having an experienced captain or guide to show you around usually makes for a smoother, more productive trip.

It's an expensive proposition, though. Prices range from $300-$400 or more for a quick half-day and up to thousands of dollars for a day on a sportfishing yacht. But before you go into sticker shock over shelling out that kind of money just to go fishing, it's important to consider what it is you're actually paying for.

There are also some best practices experienced anglers use when seeking out the right fishing guide. If you're headed to the mountains or the coast on summer vacation, or if you're looking for someone to take you catfishing on the Tennessee River this weekend, it's wise to do a little research before booking a trip. The key to a well-guided trip is for expectations to be understood by all parties involved.

Communication

This first step to organizing a good trip is to take a hard look at yourself and the people you'll be fishing with. Consider experience level as well as attention span. Whether you're a semi-pro bass angler who rips lips at weekend pot tournaments or a complete newb who holds a spinning reel upside down, it's time to put aside pride or insecurity. Honesty and a willingness to ask stupid questions will help pair you with a professional who can serve your specific needs.

Once you've identified a guide who operates at your chosen destination, you're going to want to ask some questions over the phone to get a feel for how the trip will go. Some guides will also have some questions for you. Consider this a double-sided interview. It's also a chance to determine if this is a person you'd enjoy spending a day on the water with.

"We want you to enjoy your trip, and communication helps us tailor a day to fit your needs," says Captain Quinlyn (Quin) Haddon, of Blue Magic Charters in the Florida Keys. "Most charter captains do this job because they love it. The good ones want you to love it, too."

Quin is hardcore. She spends off days deep-dropping for swordfish in thousands of feet of water. But she knows staring at a rod all day hoping for one bite isn't everyone's idea of a good time. She says communication helps her determine what kind of fishing you and your party will enjoy most. Are you a trophy hunter willing to spend hours waiting for one shot at a giant billfish, or does lots of action and a cooler full of grouper, snapper or mahi-mahi sound like more fun?

If the guide has a good idea of your experience level and expectations, they can come up with options that will be fun for anglers of any skill level. On the other hand, a lack of communication can get you in over your head. Both you — who spent big bucks — and the guide — whose reputation is their livelihood — will be frustrated if you show up to fly fish for tarpon and don't know how to cast.

Freshwater or salt, guides and captains who've been in the business a while are going to be honest with you in terms of what to expect from the fishing. Their businesses are built on repeat customers, not one-off trips. If they know what to expect from you, they'll work hard to give you a trip that meets or exceeds your expectations.

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Photo contributed by Nick Carter / Guide Phil Culver nets a monster rainbow trout for angler Steve Kraftchik on a trophy stretch of North Georgia's Soque River. A good net man is a necessity on heavily managed waters like the Soque,where rainbow and brown trout grow very large.

What You're Paying For

When you hire a plumber, it's more than just time, tools and materials you're paying for. You're also paying for knowledge, and the same is true of fishing guides. These are professionals who are on the water daily keeping up with ever-changing patterns of the fish. They know their home waters intimately and can safely navigate in changing tides or fluctuating lake and river levels.

Yes, you are paying for the use of a boat, the equipment provided, the bait and/or lures, sometimes lunch and drinks and line-untangling and fish-netting services, but most importantly you're paying someone to show you where fish are and how to catch them. Fish don't always bite, but a good guide will work hard to keep you entertained and catching fish. Many will even go out of their way to teach you what they know so you can become a better angler.

All this comes at a premium, and price should not be the only consideration when it comes to hiring a guide.

Years ago, I made the mistake of booking the cheapest guide I could find for a bachelor-party trip on West Point Lake. The guide, who we'll call Buster because, well, because that's his name, advertised his services with a post on an online forum. He promised we'd catch fish during the lake's famed white and hybrid bass run. He charged half the price of the lake's more well-known guides. What a bargain!

Buster was true to his word. We caught a bunch of fish, mostly small catfish, but we were enjoying ourselves so much we didn't notice that between baiting hooks, Buster was drinking the lion's share of the beer we had brought for five grown men. Later in the day, he passed out standing at the steering wheel while the boat was running full throttle. It's a funny story now, but it could have been catastrophic if my buddy hadn't noticed Buster's head bobbing as we hurtled toward the bank.

Buster is one of those cautionary tales. There are countless good anglers who moonlight as guides. Some are just fine, but others might not have the knowledge or the professionalism to keep clients safe and happy. Professional guides, the ones who do it for a living, might have fun on the water, but rest assured they take their jobs seriously. Your safety and enjoyment are the things that earn them business.

In case you were wondering, it is customary to tip a guide. Just like at a restaurant, 15% is a baseline. Give them more if you had a great day or if they really worked hard to put you on fish. And remember, it's still fishing, so there is no guarantee you'll catch fish. Don't hold it against the captain or crew if they do everything they can and the fish just don't cooperate.

As for Buster, we figured he'd already drunk his tip. After driving his boat back to the ramp for him, we left him there to sober up with his half-rate guide fee.

Nick Carter is the author of "Flyfisher's Guide to North Carolina & Georgia." The guide is available on Amazon.com, and autographed copies are available by emailing the author at nsc8957@gmail.com.

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