Around Christmas time five or six years ago, I received a letter from an old client, Tom Heller, from Midland, TX. His letter was just a paragraph or so but with it was a check for $500. He thanked me and apologized for not giving me a proper tip. He said his tip more than likely was $50. He was correct. He told me it was one of his first guided big game hunts. It was August 1985, when I guided Tom, the flatlander, as he called himself, up a steep 1500’ mountain face and on to a knife ridge to get above a group of rams. We dropped down on the backside of them where Tom harvested the largest of the group, a 36 ½ incher. He was amazed that he was able to accomplish that feat. I think it’s funny that after all these years, he felt he hadn’t properly tipped me. I never gave it a second thought as back then many clients only tipped $50 to $100 dollars. In the early to mid-80’s, a $250 tip was rare. Hunt prices back then were $3k to $10k. Prices now go up to $30K so I assume the tips have followed suit.
It must be fairly common for clients to think about old hunts and what they might have done differently. Last fall while having lunch with my old partner Dan, he told me that he had had a call from Jim Fink, a client from PA that Dan had guided in ’89. Jim invited Dan to come down and hunt whitetail deer on one of their leases. He told Dan that he remembered not tipping well after having such a great hunt where he and his father had harvested five animals during that multi-specie hunt.
Why am I writing a story about tips? I guess for a couple of reasons. First many of the younger guides count on tips to supplement their income since they work such a short season. Secondly, I just wanted to let people know how most clients deal with tipping and, should they go on a big game hunt, they have some idea on how or if they want to tip. I personally never strived for a tip, I just wanted all my clients to have the hunt of a lifetime because that was what they were paying me for. I tried to convey this to all of our guides and I think it worked. AAA had many generous clients and I for sure had my share during my twenty-three years of guiding.
Most seasoned clients have their own methods for tipping. Some will give money while others may give gear or guns and a few have even given hunts or trips. Guides are with their clients 24/7 for the total length of the hunt, cooking and taking care of any need they may have. Many clients become special friends with their guides and tip accordingly. Others just tip as a courtesy. Following are some of my special tips as well as those of AAA’s guides.
In my early years of guiding I used inexpensive or maybe not the best gear. That made me a good candidate for someone who wore the top of the line gear to consider up-grading mine. Good quality binoculars are critical when guiding brown bear hunters and I was using a cheap pair of Bushnell binoculars. In ’86 Karl Kliem from West German after taking a 9’5” brown bear, gave me his 10x42 Zeiss Binoculars. They only cost him $200 in Germany but were $600 in the States so to me that was a great tip. I also received rain gear from a couple of different clients since I was using my old GI raingear.
I remember my first $1,000 tip. It was the fall of 1989 when I guided Bill Cloyd from Anchorage, AK to a 10’ brown bear. That is the only fall 10 footer that I have ever guided on. Bill and I had a great time and he told me to put the money into a hunting fund so I could take a big game hunt somewhere myself. I received several more $1,000 tips over the years.
I guess my largest tip was from Tim Orton from MN. I had guided Tim to a 10’2” B&C Record book brown bear, a 40” Dall ram and he and his 9 year old son Frank to two trophy caribou. Tim sent me a Custom Brown Precision .257 Ackley Improved rifle with a 6 power Leopold scope mounted on it and an invitation to hunt mule deer with him the following fall in Montana, all expenses paid. I’m not sure how much the rifle was worth then but I know it is over $5K now. Tim is a very generous man. We had other clients who tipped AAA guides with rifles, including one to my son-in-law Sagen.
Quite a few clients like to give custom knives as tips. I have ended up with a good collection of knives. My favorite knife was given to me by Matt Caldwell from IL after he scored with a 10’2” brown bear in ’92. It was a one of a kind custom-made Alaskan Skinning knife made by “Randall Made Knives” valued at about $750 at that time. Matt has quite a collection of custom knives. I also guided Matt to a 39” ram in ’94. Matt and I have remained friends for the past 33 years. I hunted with Matt last spring when he harvested a 10’3” brown bear with AAA Alaskan Outfitters, see the post “The Big Bear.” Matt invited me to hunt whitetail on his property many times over the years and last fall I took him up on that generous offer. I harvested a beautiful 10 pointer with stuff (three extra points) as they call it in Illinois.
The largest tip that I know of was given to my old partner Brent. George Snyder from DE hunted with us five different times and had taken a ram in ’84, a brown bear in ’85 and a goat in ’86. He gave Brent a Mexican Desert Big Horn Sheep hunt valued at $25K. Brent took a nice ram on that hunt. George is one of the most generous men that I have ever known. On each hunt he paid for a least one other hunter to accompany him, Fred Franz, who was 76 on the first hunt. One hunt, he paid for three other hunters. I remember filling out his final paperwork and taking his final payment. He told me to add a $1,000 tip for Brent, $500 for me and George Lockwood (we took him fishing one day) and money for an upcoming hunt. He wrote us a check for $25K and told me they had a great time. It would be nice to be able to do something like that, but not everyone can.
Some clients tipped better if they harvested larger animals while others just tipped on the service no matter if they were successful or not. A tip I remember very well was a “potted plant” given to my partner Dan for guiding his client to a 11’3” brown bear back in ‘92. It was the largest bear taken in Alaska during the previous 26 years scoring 30 5/16 SCI points. It was tied for the SCI World Record brown bear. I had never heard of a tip like that before or after. I have no idea what that client was thinking.
Over the years, as an outfitter I was often asked by clients what would be a proper tip for their guide. I would always say it depends on how well the guide performs. The range is somewhere between a potted plant and a 25K sheep hunt. I would get a chuckle and then a statement like, “you’re no help.” I would then tell them on a 7 to 10 day one specie hunt a $250 tip lets the guide know he did a good job but if he did a great job $500 plus worked the best. On longer and multi-specie hunts, $500 is a good start but $500+ is better. However, I’ve always stated that if a client is not pleased, to let me know and that a tip is never required.
A tip to remember. During my twenty-three years of guiding and as a partner of AAA I was responsible for around 800 clients. Averaging five clients per year I personally guided over 100 of those clients. As I said earlier, I never strived for tips, I just tried to give the client a dream hunt. I only remember two clients that didn’t tip me but I’m sure there were others. Being one of the owners I knew some of the clients felt that the price of the hunt was enough. The first one was a gentleman from CO on a sheep hunt. It was in the early 2000’s. We started on August the ninth back packing into Canyon Creek glacier. I cautioned him like all of my clients about watching out for blisters. I told him if he got a hot spot to tell me and we would stop and apply a piece of moleskin. He didn’t say a word, until we made it all the way to our spike camp. He told me then he thought he had a blister. He did. The next couple of days we hunted around spike camp. The ram that we were after disappeared. I told him we would hike back to swamp camp and hunt that valley. The next day I found a legal ram across Canyon Creek and piggybacked his pack and then him across the glacier fed creek. For no known reason the ram fed over the ridge into Young Creek. I told him once we got back to swamp camp we would fly over and camp in Young Creek. Once back at the creek I could see it was about a foot deeper since it was a hot day and fed by a glacier. I had to ferry everything across again. The stream was raging and about mid-thigh level not counting the up-stream pushup. Half way across with him on my back the water force took me down. We washed down about fifty feet before we made it to shore. After ringing out our clothes we walked two miles to swamp camp. He said he wanted out of there and was afraid his foot was going to get infected and being a diabetic he didn’t want to lose his foot. I finally convinced him to stay at least one more day. I flew our gear over to Young Creek late that evening so we could legally hunt the next day. The next morning because of the blister he had a hard time walking so he told me again, he wanted out of there. He said, “It was a rough hunt and that I had done a great job.” He told me he didn’t have enough cash for a good tip so when he got home, he would “send me a tip that I would always remember.” I never heard from him again so he was right, it was a tip that I will always remember, nothing! I wished he would have just left without saying anything about a tip. It wasn’t something that I wanted. I just wanted him to get a sheep.
My other client had killed an 8’6” brown bear and told me he only had enough cash to tip the cook and packers and that he would send me a good tip when he got home. Never heard from him again either. It wasn’t a big deal but when you tell someone you’re going to send them a tip do it or don’t say anything.
Tipping over the years has become quite common in many service-related businesses. I know many people don’t like tipping but it has always been common in the guide business.