How to Become a Fishing Guide

men on a fishing boat

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Lots of us who fish are very good at what we do. We fish enough days to keep track of where the fish are located, and we can consistently put ourselves on fish. If we considered how many trips a week or month we fish, the reason for our success may become evident. The fact that we catch fish so regularly is because we fish so regularly. Heck, the majority of anglers have mastered the actual mechanics of fishing. The trick to catching fish is not so much in the mechanics as it is in knowing where the fish are located and what kind of food they are pursuing. Being on the water consistently provides us that knowledge.

Why Don't You Become a Guide?

Like a lot of us who consistently bring back fish or fish pictures, you have probably been asked why you don't get into the guiding side of fishing. And, like a lot of us, you probably thought about the prestige and glamor that would magically be bestowed upon you when the word captain precedes your name.

I remember my first encounters with fishing guides. They fished out of Flamingo in Everglades National Park. Some were better than others, but all of them had one thing in common — that title in front of their name embroidered on a tan khaki long sleeve shirt.

Fishing With the Expert

I remember one captain, in particular, Captain Walter Mann. Captain Mann probably caught more fish than most of the other guides put together back in the late-'50s and early-'60s. Rumor has it that he fished alone every day for two straight years and kept a log of every one of his trips. Weather, tide, and time of day were just some of the items he logged. He fished in every type of weather, the rumor goes, and as a result, could consult his log to help him find cooperative fish in almost any circumstance. My Dad and I fished with him on our boat one trip. We ran all the way to Rogers River on the north end of the park. Then we sat and waited another forty-five minutes before we caught a fish. Captain Mann had said it was too early to put a bait in the water, but I dropped one back behind the boat anyway. Needless to say, he was right. After about forty-five minutes, he picked up a rod and told us we would start catching trout. Within fifteen minutes we were catching trout, and we continued to catch them for another two hours. At the end of those two hours, he said we were about finished, and as if on cue, the trout stopped eating! Obviously, he was fishing a tide run and knew the fish would be there, but to a high school boy, his easy-going way of proving his knowledge was almost god-like.

Lots of Competition

So, now you decide that you want to be a captain; you want to be a guide. You want to have that title before your name, that title that says you actually know something about fishing. Well, based on the number of anglers who annually obtain that title, you are among a very large and growing group.

The Six Pack License

Over the past ten years, the applications for a captains license have doubled each year. The popular OUPV (Operator of Un-inspected Passenger Vehicle) license permits the captain to carry up to six passengers (hence the term “six-pack”) plus crew and is the easiest to obtain. A number of professional schools exempt you from taking the Coast Guard exam if you take their course. Courses run anywhere from $500 to well over $1,000 for the six-pack course.

The Master's License

The next license up is the 100-ton Master's license, which allows you to pilot a vessel for hire up to 100 tons with more than six passengers. This includes most of the charter boats and party boats in business today. The cost for the Master ticket course runs from $900 to over $2000 and the course itself runs eighty or more classroom hours.

Still Interested?

Let’s assume you want the venerable six-pack OUPV license. Somewhere in the back of your mind, you see yourself guiding a landlocked tourist to a wall trophy, or being mentioned in a well-known angling publication.


Once you have passed the course and had someone sign as a witness to your time on the water — 360 days, 90 of which have to be within the last year – you will need to apply for your license. There is an additional license fee of $150 that will go in with your application. You will also need a CPR/First aid card, completed physical, eye exam, and a drug test. Figure another $200 for these, and you are up to $1150 to get your license.

Now comes the part that most anglers fail to consider. If you really do want to try to make any money as a captain or guide, be prepared to shell out even more money.

More Costs

We’ll use Florida as an example. First and foremost the state requires a commercial vessel license. The annual cost for carrying less than 10 people is $401.50. Next, you must register your boat as a commercial vessel, a cost of around $100 per year. Each county regulates differently, but expect a county license to do business as a for-hire guide to be around $100 annually. Add $1,000,000 of liability insurance at a cost of about $1000 a year, and we are up to almost $2800 just to start taking people fishing.

Providing Tackle

The tackle situation will have you shelling out even more money. Established guides often get tackle gratis from manufacturer representatives, but for the average person starting out, you can figure on around $200 per rod and reel combo, and you will need a number of sizes and configurations. My local contacts tell me they spend about $1000 a year on tackle replacements and upgrades.

The Final Estimate

And so now, here we are. We have spent the better part of two months getting licensed, documented and equipped at a cost of close to $4000. To a lot of anglers, that doesn’t sound like much money. To most of my contacts, that is a bundle of change to spend to get the word captain in front of your name. Probably more important than anything else we have covered is the final question.

Can You Make Money as a Guide?

I checked the listings in Florida for OUPV Coast Guard licensed guides. There are over 5,000 registered that I can find. Just how many catch fish is up for another discussion, but the point is, there is an awful lot of competition out there. Public records do not reveal how many of these folks simply wanted the moniker and really don’t guide, and certainly don’t reveal their income. Just how many of them are as good as old Captain Mann remains to be seen.

So What's the Point?

I guess the point in all of this is that somewhere along the line, the large numbers of people who just want some prestige are masking the public’s access to the guides who have made a living full time taking people fishing. How’s a fella from out of state to know which guide is real and which is Memorex? Maybe we need another classification from the Coast Guard. Maybe a “name only” captain’s license will take the