How to Become a Fishing Guide in California
May 27, 2020 | 3 minute read Comments
35
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Fishing in California is diverse and challenging. Add that to the state’s great weather and beautiful nature, and you’ve got the perfect place to set up a fishing charter business. Today, you’ll find out how to become a fishing guide in California.

The California state flag flying with blue sky in the background

From fly fishing in remote mountain streams to big game fishing on a long-range trip from San Diego or Dana Point – California’s got it all. Whatever your fishing goals are, you’ll find it here. We’re here to show you what licenses you need to operate a legal charter business.

Just like in other states, freshwater and saltwater guiding have different regulations and licenses. You need more licenses for saltwater than you do for freshwater.

How to Become a Saltwater Fishing Guide

You need at least the following three documents to legally operate a saltwater fishing charter in California:

  • Captain’s License (USCG)
  • Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License + Commercial Boat Registration
  • Boat Registration

Captain’s License

All saltwater charter captains in California need to be in line with USCG requirements. You must have a Captain’s license (officially: Merchant Mariner Credential).

Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License + Commercial Boat Registration

A California guide license and commercial boat registration, two of the documents needed to become a fishing guide in California.

For most purposes, you need to 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 for charter fishing. They cost $387.25 each, coming to a pretty hefty $774.50 together (prices are subject to change).

Every fishing charter business (charters, saltwater fishing guides, and headboats) needs to have both. In addition, you may need certain other licenses depending on the type of fishing or 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 Department of Fish and Wildlife website.

DMV Boat Registration

Before you can apply for your commercial fishing charter licenses, your boat has to be registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

The vessel can only be registered by the owner. Registration can be done either in person at your local DMV office or by 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.

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

Boat Insurance

In California, it is not mandatory to have boat insurance, although a marina or landing may still require it. We also strongly recommend that you insure your boat. It’s better to be safe than sorry, after all.

How to Become a Freshwater Fishing Guide

A charter fishing boat on Lake Tahoe, California

To legally operate a freshwater guide service, you don’t need the same licenses from the Department of Wildlife. Instead, you need a Guide License from the same institution. This costs $234.58 for residents or $539.00 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 use it only 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.

Found our tips on how to become a fishing guide in California useful? You’ll enjoy reading about designing your unique fishing trip, too!

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Comments (35)
  • Paul

    Jan 15, 2018

    Does this apply to being a kayak fishing guide as well???

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      George

      Jan 15, 2018

      Hi Paul, thanks for your comment. As a kayak fishing guide in California, you do not have to register your boat, but you do need to get a Guide License from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Hope that clarifies it!

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      tyler

      Oct 6, 2020

      does this also include running guide services off of of the beach?

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      Sean

      Oct 8, 2020

      Hi Tyler,

      Thanks for the question.

      If you’re talking about a beach that’s out on the ocean, then the answer is yes.

      Navigable waters are officially defined as “waters that are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide and/or are presently used, or have been used in the past, or may be susceptible for use to transport interstate or foreign commerce.”

      I hope this helps.

      Have a good one!

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  • B

    Jan 16, 2018

    What would you consider to NOT be “navigable waters”? Feather? American? Yuba? Mekolume?

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      George

      Jan 16, 2018

      Hi B, thanks for your comment. “Navigable waters” is a term used by the government. What is and what isn’t part of it is up to them to decide… Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any kind of list with all bodies of water that fall into this category. They don’t make it easy for us!
      However, it looks like the Feather is considered navigable from the mouth to Yuba City. The American and Mekolume are also partly navigable, while the Yuba is not navigable. Hope that helps.

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  • Brad

    Mar 22, 2018

    By obtaining all these licenses, are you legally able to sell your catches?

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      George

      Mar 23, 2018

      Hi Brad,

      Thank you for reading! Unfortunately, you are not legally allowed to sell your catch from a recreational fishing trip/boat. Only if you have commercial fishing licenses are you allowed to do that.

      Let us know if there’s anything else you’re curious about!
      George

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  • mark jacobi

    Apr 15, 2018

    How many days can you expect to guide people in say the eastern sierra lakes can’t find any statistics on how many people will use a guide service.thanks for any help

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      George

      Apr 16, 2018

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for reading! To be honest, we don’t actually work with any guides in the eastern Sierra yet. I did a bit of research, and there aren’t too many guides in the area and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of demand. If you’re looking to guide once-twice a week, maybe that would work, but I doubt it could be a full-time thing.

      Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any other questions.

      George

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  • Gene Perkins

    Apr 19, 2018

    I am considering becoming a fishing guide for the delta region, I already hold my 100 ton masters coast guard license. what other documentation would I need to for boat and business ect

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      George

      Apr 19, 2018

      Hi Gene,

      Thanks for your comment. To be a licensed fishing guide for the delta region you need to have your boat registered at the DMV. Also, you need to get a Guide License from the Department of Wildlife. This guide license does not cover your clients, so they will also have to buy their own licenses before starting their charter.

      Hope that helps, let me know if you have any more questions!
      George

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  • David Frausto

    Apr 27, 2018

    Where do I take the test for my captains license? Do I have to enroll in a course or is it an online test?

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      George

      Apr 30, 2018

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your question. There are 2 ways of going about it. You can enroll in a course at a sea school, which I recommend. It’s a little more expensive, but they know exactly what they’re doing and you’ll be almost certain to actually pass the tests. The second option is to take the test directly at a USCG centre. This is cheaper, but you’ll have to do all the preparations yourself. This means that you’ll be more likely to miss some forms, fill in incorrect information, etc. That’s why I recommend you go through a sea school.

      Hope that helps, let me know if I can do anything else for you!
      George

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  • Tony franceschi

    Jun 30, 2018

    Do I need a business license to charge clients on guided fishing trips?

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      George

      Jul 2, 2018

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for your question. Yes, in order to charge clients for guided fishing trips you need to have some type of company, as you have to pay sales tax over your revenue. The most common type of business for fishing charters is an LLC.

      Hope that helps!

      Tight lines,
      George

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  • Chris

    Jul 8, 2018

    To become a guide on the trinity river from a drift boat do you need a uscg license?

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      George

      Jul 9, 2018

      Hi Chris,

      Good question. You don’t, because the Trinity River is not navigable, making a Guide License sufficient.

      Enjoy guiding on the Trinity, and thanks for reading!

      George

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      Andre

      Nov 20, 2019

      Same goes for the eastern sierra nevada?

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      Albert

      Nov 20, 2019

      Hi Andre,

      Short answer, it depends on the river.

      Some bodies of water may be classed as navigable, most probably won’t. What river or rivers are you planning to guide on?

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  • Derek

    Oct 3, 2018

    We also need a surety bond and an LLC. Do I need to get the bond first or the LLC? Also we need “New applicants must include GO ID # or a copy of
    identification with their Guide License Worksheet or
    Guide Employee Registration Worksheet?” Also it says “Documentation showing that the employee is covered
    by workers’ compensation and subject to the State
    and Federal taxing authorities for withholding of
    income tax must be submitted with a Guide Employee
    Registration.” Is that threw the LLC? I plan on doing fresh water guiding and not from a boat. Anything else I need?

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      George

      Oct 4, 2018

      Hi Derek,

      Thanks for the questions.

      You’re right, in order to actually guide fishing trips you also need to submit a surety bond to the amount of $1,000 and you need to set up an LLC. As far as I am aware, there is no strict order in which you need to get these. Just be aware that you need to have done both in order to legally take customers fishing for payment.

      As for the GO ID#, you can easily apply for that here. However, as stated in your quote, you can also just use a copy of a valid form of ID.

      If you are the proprietor of the LLC, you should not need to submit “documentation showing that the employee is covered by worker’s compensation” etc.

      Finally, if you are fresh water guiding from land, your guide license does not count as a fishing license. You will have to buy a fishing license for yourself, and your customers will have to buy their own fishing licenses as well. When it comes to the second rod enhancement, you will need to add this separately.

      Hope that answers all your questions!

      George

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  • Derek

    Oct 3, 2018

    Also another question. Does the guide license count as my actual fishing license? Also i’m guessing the people I take out will need their own fishing license for freshwater? If the guide license counts as my fishing license is the 2nd rod enhancement already active?

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  • alex nolasco

    Jul 27, 2019

    I don’t have an ID but I’m a California resident how can i get a fishing licence? I have my college ID and internet bills under my name.. please help

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      Albert

      Jul 29, 2019

      Hi Alex,

      You may find it difficult to prove your residency in California without a CA driver’s license or other state ID.

      On top of that, in order to buy a license, you need at least one form of ID (passport, driver’s license, birth certificate etc).

      The best idea is probably to contact your local FWC office and talk through your situation with them. You can also ring their license sales line on (800) 565-1458.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

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  • Harland

    Aug 26, 2019

    Thank you for all the great info here. I do appreciate your time and effort put in here. thanks again.

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      Albert

      Aug 26, 2019

      Hi Harland,

      Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found it useful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Mateo

    Sep 18, 2019

    Is there a legal size requirement to be a charter boat?

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      Albert

      Sep 18, 2019

      HI Mateo,

      So far as I’m aware, there’s no legal minimum size for a charter boat. However, it’s probably best to check with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure.

      To give you an idea, the smallest charter we have listed in California is a 14′ drift boat.

      I hope that helps!

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  • Zac

    Feb 19, 2020

    This Article and the feedback on questions has been immensely helpful. Do you know if I need a separate California Business license or if my Nevada Business license is all I need. I plan on guiding for trout in Eastern California.

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      Sean

      Feb 19, 2020

      Hi Zac,

      That’s a great question.

      According to the CDFW, you do need a separate guide’s license to run a fishing charter business in California. The 2020 non-resident fishing guide’s license is $539.00.

      I would also like to point you to this document provided by the CDFW, which provides more information on the requirements for out of state fishing guides.

      I hope you’ll find that helpful.

      Tight lines!

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  • Mike zjohnson

    Mar 11, 2020

    Can you fish river estuaries to the end of a rivers jetties, or river mouth, with a freshwater guide license? Thank you, Mike.

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      Sean

      Mar 12, 2020

      Hi Mike,

      That’s a good question.

      The short answer is that, in most cases, you can. Take a look at the official CDWF definition of inland waters (for which you need to fulfill the freshwater guide requirements):

      “Inland waters are all the fresh, brackish and inland saline waters of the state, including lagoons and tidewaters upstream from the mouths of coastal rivers and streams. Inland waters exclude open or enclosed bays contiguous to the ocean including the waters of San Francisco Bay and the waters of Elkhorn Slough, west of Elkhorn Road between Castroville and Watsonville.”

      You can check this Guide Laws and Requirements document for more information. The document is updated for 2020.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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  • Joseph

    Aug 6, 2020

    Hello, I was wondering if you need a guide license to guide people from the beach or the pier or Jetties. If so how do I go about getting that started?

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      Sean

      Aug 7, 2020

      Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for reading.

      Yes, to guide people from a beach, pier or jetty, you will need to have a valid Guide License.

      According to the CDFW, “Any person who engages in the business of guiding or packing, or who acts as a guide for any consideration or compensation at all, must first secure a guide license from the Department.”

      To obtain this license, you’ll need to fill this form. You’ll also need to pay a fee. At the moment, the license fee is $234.58 for residents or $539.00 for non-residents.

      For details on Guide License requirements, please check out this document.

      I hope you’ll find this helpful.

      Have a great day!

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