How to Become a Fishing Guide in California

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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. Every fishing charter business (charters, saltwater fishing guides, and headboats) needs 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 $409.50
Non-Resident Commercial Boat Registration $1,213.50
Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel License $409.50

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 $248.49 for residents or $570.25 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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