From the outside, it might seem like fishing guides are just raking in the dough. With the average inshore charter running $350 to $400 for four hours and offshore charters $900 to $1,200 for eight hours, there’s no question that these trips are costly.
Having been a little closer to this issue than most (I was a whisker away from starting my own charter business before last year’s red tide choked my plan to death), I think I can speak to why it’s so pricey to go on a charter. Spoiler alert: It’s not because your captain is installing gold toilets in his mansion.
What does it cost to run a charter trip? Well, there’s obviously the things that will be used up, such as bait and fuel. Of course, the captain must own and maintain a boat. You’ll probably want to use his fishing tackle too. Then there are the less obvious things, like various types of insurance and permits.
The only way to really understand it is to break it down. So, let’s. We’ll have to make some assumptions to get actual numbers, but I think it will open your eyes.
For this trip, let’s go into the backcountry of Bull and Turtle bays. We’ll be riding a 22-foot bay boat and targeting whatever we can find. There are three anglers plus the captain. The four-hour trip is $375. All pretty typical stuff.
Consumables are easy to figure. There’s no bait to net, so we’ll need shrimp. Three fishermen can burn through 10 dozen shrimp if the bite is good, so that’s what we’ll put in the well. That’s $30, leaving $345 profit.
Boats run on gas, so we better pump some in. The boat gets about 3 mpg and we’ll probably put 30 miles on her. The boat stays at the marina, so that’s where we have to buy gas at $3.50 a gallon. Another $35 spent, leaving $310 profit.
Now we need to figure out some hard costs. To do that, we need to tally gear costs and then amortize them over the number of trips our guide will run.
The boat is the biggest one. Let’s be optimistic and assume that our guide found a great deal on a quality used vessel. He spent $25K on the boat and another $25K to outfit it right (new engine, jackplate, trolling motor, modern fish finder, reliable batteries, etc).
The boat will be able to run many years’ worth of trips, although it will require regular maintenance and equipment replacement. Guide boat engines accrue hours quickly and need replacing in two or three years. Realizing that engine is going to cost $20K and the old one will sell for half that, we’ll say his budget for keeping up and replacing boat gear is $8,000 a year (but recognize that major unexpected expenses can pop up).
You can’t fish without tackle, and a professional guide needs quality gear. Let’s call that $300 for a rod and reel combo with line, and he’ll need eight. That’s four to fish with, two as spares on the boat, and two back at home for when something breaks.
He’ll also need tackle for other types of fishing (tarpon, sharks, reef fish, or whatever else is targeted). Let’s toss in castnets, hooks, weights, jigs, floats, lures and whatever else your guide uses. Conservatively, that’s perhaps $6,000 in tackle, and with clients’ rough handling it doesn’t last long. He’ll probably spend at least that much a year to keep tackle on the boat.
The boat needs a place to stay. He can keep it at home and tow it or store it at the marina. Both are expensive. Our captain has opted for a marina lift, which allows him the freedom to run as early or late as clients want. That runs him $400 a month.
Then there’s insurance — not just for the boat, but also liability to cover those unfortunate incidents we all wish weren’t a part of life. To have both, he’s looking at about $200 monthly. (By the way, guides aren’t legally required to carry insurance. When you’re choosing one, you might want to ask whether he does.)
Gotta have a license. For an inshore or nearshore guide, this is a fairly minor expense at $400 a year. For offshore guides fishing federal waters, it’s considerably more costly. Reef and pelagic fish permits are running about $25K to $30K right now. The government no longer issues new permits — you have to buy one from an existing permittee and transfer it.
Let’s do some addition. To simplify, we’ll do the whole thing over 10 years and get a per year cost. Ready? OK: $50,000 for the boat, $80,000 for boat maintenance, $60,000 for tackle, $48,000 for storage, $24,000 for insurance, and $4,000 for licenses (since our guide is inshore only).
That comes to $266,000 — about $27,000 a year in expenses, not including what it costs to actually run the trip. Throw in the extra stuff we didn’t tally, such as bottled water and sunscreen for clients and keeping his merchant mariner credential current, and our intrepid guide will have to run 100 trips a year just to cover expenses.
If he’s running 200 trips a year (which is more than most local guides), he’s netting about $30,000 a year before taxes. That’s not exactly rolling in it. Now you see why most guides aren’t buying shiny new boats and trucks or going on first-class vacations. To make it work, most fishing guides have another job, or a well-paid spouse.
It’s not easy to be a fishing guide. You work long hours (that four-hour trip probably required another two or three hours before and after that you never saw). It’s physically and mentally demanding. Your job is to take people who have no idea how to fish and somehow get them the catch of a lifetime, and you’re ultimately making around $20 an hour (if you can pull in enough trips).
Now that you have a better understanding of why charter trips cost what they do, I hope you also can see why a captain who does his job well should always be tipped. For a guide who is having a tough time finding enough trips because of red tide or lousy weather, those tips might be the only thing keeping him afloat.
As the Fish Coach, Capt. Josh Olive offers personalized instruction on how and where to fish in Southwest Florida. Whether you’re a complete beginner or just looking to refine your techniques, he can help you get past the frustration and start catching more fish. Lessons can be held on your boat, on local piers or even in your backyard. To book your session or for more information, go to FishCoach.net, email Josh@FishCoach.net or call 941-276-9657.