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A Lot Has Changed in 40 Years in the Guiding Business

Nov 2, 2016 | Mike Lawson Claire_Bowen_with_Hootie.jpg

We gave little thought to outfitting and guiding. I had worked as a fishing guide in the past. We had little trouble obtaining outfitting licenses and permits in Yellowstone Park and Montana. At the time we did we did not realize that securing an outfitter’s license in Idaho was next to impossible. After meeting with the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Licensing Board in Boise we found that Idaho has the most regulated outfitting and guiding laws in the country. All rivers were restricted to a specific number of outfitter licenses and there were no licenses available for the Henry’s Fork or other waters in our region. It looked like we would have a fly shop in Idaho but could only guide in Montana and Yellowstone Park.

Fortunately one of the 8 outfitters on the Henry’s Fork was in the market to sell his business. The price was reasonable but this unplanned expense further diluted our already stretched budget. Fortunately the Idaho licensing board approved this transaction and we were issued Idaho outfitter’s license #222.


We also found that turning a profit on guiding wouldn’t be easy. In Idaho, by definition of law, guides must be employees of an outfitter. As such outfitters are responsible for payroll taxes, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation and other payroll related expenses for each guide employed. We also quickly realized there were plenty of other hands out for a piece of the action including our federal agencies. Being located so close to our neighboring state of Montana also put us at a disadvantage. Montana doesn’t collect sales tax. More importantly their outfitting laws are far less restrictive. It was almost as easy to obtain an outfitters license as a guide license. Most of our Montana competitors hired guides as independent contractors avoiding the associated employer tax liabilities. Consequently we had far more expenses that we had to pass on to our customers.

Today the outfitting laws in Idaho are even more restrictive. While there are a specific number of outfitters restricted to any given river, lake or area, originally there was no restriction on the number of guides. In the 1980s boating regulations changed to allow for only a maximum number of guides floating any given river section. I’ve always supported this to insure that the non-guided public will not be impacted by the guided public. This is not the case in Montana where rivers like the Madison, Missouri and Big Horn are not restricted to the number of guides.

Over the past 40 years we’ve learned a thing or two. We realized that it would be difficult to grow our business without adding to our legal Idaho operating area on the Henry’s Fork, Henry’s Lake and Island Park Reservoir. Over the years we have purchased additional outfitting businesses for the South Fork of the Snake and the Teton River. Adding these two great fly fishing resources also gives us another leg up on our competitors. Today we are one of only two outfitters with legal outfitting licenses and permits for the Madison River, Hebgen Lake, Yellowstone Park, the South Fork of the Snake, Teton River, Henry’s Lake, Island Park Reservoir, and the Henry’s Fork.


The associated costs of our large operating area have increased the cost of doing business. In addition to state outfitting licenses, other state and federal agencies also require special use permits under their jurisdiction. Today we hold 10 different state and federal permits, each requiring detailed reports and a financial cut of our guide fees. Outfitter liability insurance premiums are also predicated on our operating area.

There is a good reason that there are virtually no stand-alone fly fishing guiding businesses in Southeastern Idaho. The margin on guiding alone is not enough to offset the cost of doing business. Lodges with associated guide service utilize guiding as a way to fill their rooms. The profit is in filling rooms, not guiding. Most lodges that offer guide service provide everything needed for the trip including fishing equipment, waders, and flies.

Of the seven Idaho outfitters that operate on the Henry’s Fork, only two do not provide their own lodging. At Henry’s Fork Anglers, our focus is on our retail store. While guiding brings in a substantial percentage of our revenue, the profit margin on guiding alone is very small. Like fishing licenses, guiding brings a lot of customers into our store. Some anglers expect us to “throw the flies in” with the cost of the trip. I wish we could do that. Because our margin is low we cannot provide fishing equipment, waders, flies and other essentials while keeping our rates competitive. We expect our guide customers to bring their own equipment or purchase it after they arrive. We also offer rods and waders for rent.

While we don’t want to “nickel and dime” our customers, the cost fishing equipment, flies and licenses can add up. This year we have decided to offer an all-inclusive guiding option to include all of the essentials for our clients who prefer to know the total cost of the trip up front.


Look for more details about the all-inclusive guiding package at a later date. Whether you want to take advantage of the new all-inclusive guiding package or not, we are pleased that we will be able to hold our guide rates at last year’s rate without an increase. We will also to offer 4 day 4 rives special guide package from July 15 – September 15. The only change is that this year it will not include accommodations. There are a number of great options for accommodations available. We will be happy to help arrange your accommodations for you. The guiding only package for 4 days per person is $1050.00/per person. 5 nights lodging and meals at Elk Creek Ranch for example is about $675.00 per person.

Many days in 2017 are already getting full. If you want to request a specific guide or fishing area, we recommend you make arrangements at your earliest convenience.