How to Become a Fishing Guide in California

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If we were to choose only one word to describe fishing in California, it would be “diverse.” From endless hotspots and numerous fish species to great weather and beautiful nature, the Golden State is the perfect place to set up a fishing charter business. So, if becoming a fishing guide in California crossed your mind, read on and find out how to be a part of its diverse angling scene.

Whether you’re into fly fishing in remote mountain streams or big game pursuits out of San Diego or Dana Point – California’s got it all. Whatever your fishing goals are, you’ll find them here. Just like Captain Steven Locken of RockenReel Sportfishing did.

Capt. Steven always wanted to share his passion for angling with people, and no place was as alluring to him as California. Now, with years of chartering experience behind him, we asked him to walk us through his guiding journey – from enrolling in the licensing program to becoming the successful guide he is today.

Together with Capt. Steven, we’ll outline the process and list the documents you need to become a fishing guide and operate a legal charter business in California.

How to Become a Saltwater Fishing Guide

Freshwater and saltwater guiding in California have different regulations and permits. For this reason, we’ll cover them separately. But before you even get to the licensing requirements, you have to complete the training program first.

Take a Course and Pass an Exam

Most of the things you hear during the course, you already know. However, I suggest that you stay on your homework from day one. A lot of guys put things off. I know I do. But in those couple of weeks, give it 150%. It’ll pay off.

Capt. Steven Locken

In order to become a certified charter operator, you have to successfully complete a course and pass a final exam. Capt. Steven took an intensive two-week Master 100 Tons course developed by the Maritime Institute. He remembers it being almost like a nine-to-five job, Monday through Friday, with weekends filled with additional homework.

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Once you apply for the program, you’ll receive the learning materials. Some of the subjects you have to excel in to pass the final exam are:

  • Boat Operation
  • Navigation Rules
  • State Regulations
  • Fire Prevention
  • Vessel Maintenance
  • First Aid
A photo of Steven Locken’s Master 100 Tons diploma issued by the Maritime Institute certifying that he successfully completed the course

The navigation part of the test was tough for me ’cause it was in Chesapeake Bay and I’m in Southern California. That’s the other side of where I feel at home.

Capt. Steven Locken

Nowadays, most of the courses are online. However, the final exam requires in-person presence. And as Capt. Steven points out, you may be tested on different waters from those you’re used to. But don’t be discouraged if you’re not successful at your first attempt. You can retake the exam and even extend the course. Just make sure to complete everything within a year of enrollment.

Make Sure Your Documents are Order

The course is only the beginning. You then have to get your TWIC, consortium drug test approval, a USCG license, etc.

Capt. Steven Locken

When you officially pass the exam, you’re eligible to become a guide. But, as Capt. Steven highlighted, the course is only the first step. Apart from the above-mentioned documents, such as the TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) and drug testing letter, the following three are the cornerstone of being able to legally operate a saltwater fishing business in California:

  • Captain’s License (MMC)
  • Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License and Commercial Boat Registration
  • Boat Registration

Get a Captain’s License

Every five years you gotta renew it. You don’t want to miss out on that or else you must go back on the course again.

Capt. Steven Locken

A Captain’s license, officially known as the Merchant Mariner Credential (MMC), is the most important document for your future line of work as a California guide. It’s issued by the United States Coast Guard (USCG). This means that all saltwater charter captains in California need to comply with the USCG requirements.

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For detailed instructions on how to go about completing your MMC and the USCG requirements, please read our article on “How to Get Your Captain’s License.”

Obtain a Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License and Commercial Boat Registration

For most purposes, you must purchase two licenses from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. These are the Commercial Boat Registration and the Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License. Any operator that fishes for profit will need the first one. The second is specifically designed for charter fishing.

Fishing businesses such as charters, saltwater fishing guides, and headboats have to have both of these licenses, and the costs differ depending on whether or not you’re a resident. Here’s a quick breakdown:

License Type Cost Resident Commercial Boat Registration $443.50 Non-Resident Commercial Boat Registration $1,315.75 Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License $443.50

In addition, you may need other permits depending on the type of fishing or your exact location. For instance, you need a special permit to target Swordfish or to fish south of Point Arguello (Santa Barbara). You can find a list of all the species permits and special stamps on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Register Your Boat

Before you apply for yout commercial fishing charter license, make sure your boat is registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The vessel can only be registered by the owner and it can be done either in person at your local DMV office or via mail. If you recently moved to California, you need to register your boat at the DMV within 120 days of taking up residency in the state.

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Registering your boat costs anywhere between $29 and $77 (subject to change), depending on when you register and whether you’re a resident of the Golden State or not.

Insure Your Vessel

In California, it isn’t mandatory to have boat insurance, although a marina or landing may still require it. We also strongly recommend that you insure your boat. Better safe than sorry, right?

How to Become a Freshwater Fishing Guide

A photo featuring a charter boat on Lake Tahoe on a bright and sunny day with snow-capped mountains in the distance and greenery surrounding the lake

To legally operate a freshwater guide service, you need a Guide License from the Department of Wildlife. It costs $269.25 for residents or $618.00 for non-residents (subject to change).

You also need a USCG captain’s license to fish in navigable waters. Navigable waters are waterways with commercial traffic, like the Sacramento River and its delta. In addition, you must always register your boat at the DMV, even if you only use it on a private lake.

Finally, your clients need to purchase their own fishing licenses. They can easily do this on the Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

Starting Out as a Fishing Guide

Starting out as a fishing guide in California is a lengthy process and, as such, it may be overwhelming. Being aware of what awaits you might help you reduce stress and focus better. Here are some tips Capt. Steven wishes he knew before the whole process started. You might find them useful.

Pre-License Period

  • Practice, practice, and practice.

If you don’t have your own boat and you’re yet to enroll in the course, make sure you train whenever and wherever you can. You need to go out in the worst conditions over and over again until you know that thing inside out.

Capt. Steven Locken

  • Find a reputable school and stay focused.

Stay on top of the course and put a few hours of homework in, too. That way you don’t have to keep going back and forth, and you can get those tests on the first try.

Capt. Steven Locken

Post-License Period

  • Spread the word about your business.

I tried doing it on my own by word of mouth and knocking on doors. Then, a friend who uses FishingBooker suggested I should sign up with you guys. I did that and I haven’t looked back since. Over the years I accumulated different booking sources but FishingBooker remains my main source.

Capt. Steven Locken

  • Being a captain is a huge responsibility.

You’re checking your gauges all the time and you have to think in advance as well, especially when you’re entrusted with paying passengers. Engines break down and accidents happen. But you have to be prepared.

Capt. Steven Locken

  • Set the right expectations right.

I try to educate my customers before we get out on the water by telling them what to expect. I inform them of the poor conditions or tell them their chosen fish aren’t around as their season isn’t on. So, in my introductory call, I openly tell them we might not catch a lot of fish but we’re gonna have a great time for sure. And they appreciate hearing the truth.

Capt. Steven Locken

  • It’s the experience that matters.

When you go out fishing with me, you’re not booking just a fishing trip – you’re getting an entire experience. We’re learning the ropes, throwing the bait together, the jokes are pumping, and I’m explaining the water temperatures, currents, tides, and even natural resources we have. We’re also looking for sea lions, dolphins, and whales! So, from the moment you book with me to the moment you get off the boat, it’s a show – and clients love it!

Capt. Steven Locken

Final Word: It’s All Down to You

After having talked with Capt. Steven extensively about the topic, we agreed that becoming a fishing guide might not be a quick and easy process, but if that’s your passion, it’ll be worth it. After all, you know what they say – choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life!

Meanwhile, we hope that our mutual efforts to outline the process and share tips on how to approach it will help you on your guiding journey. And once you’re ready to spread the word about your business, don’t hesitate to reach out to us and list your boat on FishingBooker. Good luck and tight lines!

Did you find our tips on how to become a fishing guide in California useful? What was your experience like? Feel free to ask license-related questions or share your own guiding journey with us in the comments below.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>