How to Become a Fishing Guide in California
May 16, 2019 | 3 minute read Comments
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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.

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

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. Being a guide in California is exciting and diverse. 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

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 needs the first one. The second is specifically for charter fishing. They cost $379 each, coming to a pretty hefty $758 together.

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 already 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 between $29 to $77, depending on when you register and if you are 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

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. If you’re a California resident, this will cost you $229.43.

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!

Comments (19)
  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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